Zhu Qizhan painting in his studio in Shanghai in the 1990s. Courtesy Shuishi Xuan Collection

Zhu Qizhan: Gentle virtuoso

Zhu Qizhan lived through the turmoil of China’s modern history, before reinventing himself in his eighties. As a major retrospective of his work opens at Christie’s in New York, we look back on his life and his art

He integrated Western and Eastern influences in his art

Born in Jiangsu Province in 1892, seven years before the Boxer Rebellion and during the last years of Imperial rule, Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996) is heralded today as one of China’s foremost modern artists, with a museum dedicated to his art in Shanghai. His still lifes and landscapes are renowned for their exuberance of spirit and his deliberate integration of Western and Chinese influences.

This month, Zhu is the subject of a major retrospective of paintings from the Shuishi Xuan Collection at Christie’s in New York (until March 22). His works can also be found in the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In 1991 the artist received the first Shanghai Literature and Art Outstanding Contribution Award.

He was a vocal advocate for a cultural renaissance in the arts

By the age of 18, Zhu had witnessed the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and become an active participant in the fight for a cultural renaissance in the arts. As the new Nationalist Government imposed social and economic reforms, young, fiercely radical writers and painters agitated for a Chinese modern art — one that embraced science and technology and looked for inspiration towards the avant-garde movements happening in Europe.

In 1918, the young artist went to study in Japan, where he discovered the post-Impressionist painters Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, and the vibrant works of Matisse. He returned to China to teach at the Shanghai Art Academy and established the Moshe Art Society with the avant-garde oil painter Xu Beihong, another key player in China’s fledgling modern art movement, whose 1939 work, Scenes Inspired by Yu Xin’s Poetic Sentiment, realised HK$32,600,000 — around US$4 million — at Christie’s in May 2016.

His paintings had a dark, expressionistic power

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Big Goose Pagoda, circa 1950s. Handscroll, ink and colour on paper. 12 x 72 in (31.3 x 184.6 cm). From the Shuishi Xuan Collection, New York

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Big Goose Pagoda, circa 1950s. Handscroll, ink and colour on paper. 12 x 72 in (31.3 x 184.6 cm). From the Shuishi Xuan Collection, New York

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Zhu turned to traditional Chinese painting (guohua), travelling to the countryside and drawing workers in the fields and in the factories en plein air. Albums of his sketches in the exhibition reveal a vigorous, tightly worked aesthetic. He became a part of the Xie Yi oil painting school, which literally translates as ‘to write thoughts’. A rare example of a handscroll (above) from this period is featured in the exhibition.

He was banned from painting in the 1960s

During the Cultural Revolution artists and scholars were expelled from their teaching posts, beaten and forced to undergo re-education, and banned from making art. At the age of 75, Zhu was ordered to become a street sweeper.

At the age of 80 he reinvented himself as an artist

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Pomegranates and Grapes, 1989. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 27 x 27 in (69 x 69 cm). From the Shuishi Xuan Collection, New York

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Pomegranates and Grapes, 1989. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 27 x 27 in (69 x 69 cm). From the Shuishi Xuan Collection, New York

‘Everybody has talent at 25,’ Degas once observed, ‘the difficulty is to have it at 50’. When Zhu fell ill in the 1970s, he was given permission to recover at home and it was here, in his early 80s, that he began to paint again.

‘One brushstroke more is too much and one brushstroke less is too few’ — Zhu Qizhan

The results were startlingly original; he produced sophisticated still-life and landscape paintings using ancient techniques and calligraphic motifs. The work Returning in Springtime (1976), below, offered for sale at Christie’s in the Fine Chinese Paintings auction on 19 March, reflects his skilful virtuosity.

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Returning in Springtime. 9½ x 11⅝  in (24.3 x 29.7  cm). Estimate $6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 19 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Returning in Springtime. 9½ x 11⅝ in (24.3 x 29.7 cm). Estimate: $6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 19 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

His paintings are frequently faked

Zhu’s paintings have wide appeal — Monastery on the Mountain Ridge realised HK$937,500 (over US$100,000) at Christie’s in 2013 — and as a result they are often faked, and this is partly because they look easy to do. But as any artist will tell you, it is much harder to forge a simple and expressive work than a detailed one.

As Zhu once explained, ‘To be free, simple, and succinct is extremely demanding since the brushstroke must be so utterly sparse and direct while, at the same time, never lack anything. One brushstroke more is too much and one brushstroke less is too few.’

The paintings appear to have been painted quickly — but that is deceptive. The brushwork was executed with a painstaking deliberation in order to let the ink bleed deep into the paper. Fake Zhu Qizhans are relatively easy to spot because the ink sits on the surface of the picture, rather than sinking into its depths.

It is always important to check that the artist’s seals are clear and well-carved, rather than cracked, and that the colourwash is pure and not muddy.

He lived to the age of 103

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Loquats and Persimmons, 1996. Album leaf, ink and colour on paper. 19¾ x 13 in (50 x 34.5 cm). From the Shuishi Xuan Collection, New York

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Loquats and Persimmons, 1996. Album leaf, ink and colour on paper. 19¾ x 13 in (50 x 34.5 cm). From the Shuishi Xuan Collection, New York

Zhu died in 1996 at the age of 103, and in the last month of his life he painted the whimsically beautiful still-life, Loquats and Persimmons (above). The ornamental spiky leaves of the orange loquats contrast with the soft, feathery, dry brushstrokes of the fruit, creating a work of poetic simplicity.

Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996): Following My Own Truth is on view 14–22 March at Christie’s in New York