AN ODE TO THE PAST
A heroic articulation of a celebrated Tang dynasty poem, The Song of the Pipa Player is a moving masterwork within Fu Baoshi’s historical figure painting oeuvre at the acme of his career. Executed in 1945, the painting depicts a scene from the eponynious poem by the statesman and poet Bai Juyi (772-846) with distinct expressions of pathos: in an unusual composition dominated by diagonal movement, the two groups of figures are rendered with precise brushstrokes and skilful handling of light and darkness, veiled only by the brooding grove of trees caught in the wind. Austere and deeply romantic in tone, the work presents a triumphant dialogue between poetry and painting that makes The Song of the Pipa Player one of Fu Baoshi’s finest artistic achievements.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
“Father pours so much compassion in his paintings that they do not evoke excessive sentimentality, but instead radiate a comforting, spiritual beauty. Father does not merely narrate stories; he creates the very embodiment of emotions.”
- Fu Yiyao
As a fervent devotee of classical literature, particularly that of ancient China, Fu Baoshi repeatedly painted the heroes and figures from age-old odes and songs. Throughout the 1940s The Song of the Pipa Player remained one of his favourite subjects after he settled in the wartime capital of Chongqing with a growing family. Worked and reworked on for over a decade, Fu Baoshi’s several renditions of The Song of the Pipa Player, which his daughter Fu Yiyao fondly recalls was a vehicle for his early portraits of ladies, reveal the artist’s personal explorations of the theme. The Song of the Pipa Player, presented here, is dated ‘two days before jingzhe of yiyou year’, which corresponds to 4 March, 1945 when the end of the war was in Sight. A painting dated spring of jiashen year (1944) currently in the collection of the Nanjing Museum (FIG. 1) portrays three figures – the eponymous player of pipa, or Chinese lute, the poet, and his guest – in a seemingly straight-forward arrangement. A more well-known and often published version (FIG. 2), also in the Nanjing Museum, shows an unusual diagonal composition of two groups of three figures and a standing white horse in the foreground similar to the present work. Here, a tall maple tree growing from side to side takes precedence, and the expressive, detailed treatment of the figures is exceptionally rare. Although this work is undated, it is presumed that it was painted circa 1944, after the previous painting was finished, as one can clearly see the artist’s progression in terms of complexity in composition and technique. Fu also painted a number of works based on The Song of the Pipa Player after 1949, notably the small-scale work housed in the Nanjing Museum (FIG. 3). As Fu increasingly turned to landscape painting after the founding of new China in 1949, perhaps to serve the needs of those who favoured Soviet-style socialist realism, the fact that he returned to The Song of the Pipa Player after 1949 attests to the subject’s importance to the artist.
Compared to the 1944 work in the Nanjing Museum, the current painting displays a previously unseen maturity and confidence. Here, the figures give way to the heavily foliaged tree that takes centre stage, occupying almost the entirety of the image. Through the branches and leaves the figures are seen as if through windows, in which the two servants, horseman and the horse in the foreground appear larger in scale than the group of figures in the back, creating a clear effect of perspective. As the eye moves upwards along the contour of the tree, one is met with a powerful scene of the three central figures painted against a light greyish green background depicting the river – on which the moon is suggested by negative space, showing the colour of the paper.
With a heightened dramatic tension expressed by the relationship between the figures, the thought-out positioning of different pictorial elements, and the contrast between light and shadow, The Song of the Pipa Player so boldly demonstrates the revolutionary vision and originality that marks Fu Baoshi one of the most important artists of the twentieth century.
Originally in the collection of the family of K’ung Hsiang-Hsi after it was completed, The Song of the Pipa Player travelled from Taiwan to the United States, and had remained in the collection of the family. In 2010, the painting was auctioned by Christie’s, achieving a world auction record for the artist in that year. It has since enriched the scholarship on Fu Baoshi’s figure painting.
IMAGES OF ARCHAIC BEAUTY
‘I prefer painting landscape in the style of artists of the Yuan dynasty and onwards, and figures in the manner of artists of the Southern Song and those that came before.’
- Fu Baoshi
Although Fu Baoshi’s desire to illustrate historical figures and classical narrative poems only intensified after he moved inland with the onslaught of war, his deep interest in the literary and historic classics has long shaped his work. A consummate art historian as well as artist, Fu wrote numerous theses on Chinese landscape painting in his twenties, including On the Evolution of Chinese Paintings.
With the help of the artist Xu Beihong, Fu secured funds from the central and provincial governments to travel to Japan in the early 1930s, where ink painting was influenced by the art of China dating to the ancient times. It is hardly surprising that a keen interest in classical antiquity permeates Fu Baoshi’s figure paintings: the God and Lady of the Xiang River, the poet Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BC), the Han statesman Su Wu (140-60 BC), the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, the Song scholar-general Wen Tianxiang (1236-1283) and the artist Shitao (1642-1707) are very much in his repertoire.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, artists in Japan were greatly inspired by historical subjects adapted from China, particularly those drawn from Chinese poetry of the past including The Song of the Pipa Player. As a young student in Japan, Fu Baoshi was likely to be familiar with some of these works, known examples of which include paintings by Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) and Hashimoto Kansetsu (1883-1945). It was also possible that Fu modelled his painting after a pair of six-panel screens that Hashimoto executed in 1910 (FIG. 6). While the two works share a similar composition, the modes of representation cannot be more different: Japanese artists at the turn of the century emphasised the decorative use of colour and light, and in contrast, Fu Baoshi employs silk-thin and swift, abbreviated brushwork reminiscent of that of the early masters to depict the face and garments of the figure. Through his studies in Japan, Fu rediscovered ancient methods to depict figures that became accessible outside China – techniques long neglected in China after the Yuan dynasty due to the literati predilection. He learned that capturing the spirit through form is of the utmost importance, stating that he preferred painting ‘figures in the manner of artists of the Southern Song and those that came before.’
In Japan, Fu Baoshi was to meet a compatriot who changed his life and career. His tutor at the Imperial University of Fine Arts in Tokyo, Kimbara Seigo (1888-1958), introduced him to the distinguished author and historian Guo Moruo (1892-1978) who was living in Japan in exile at the time. The two men formed a lifelong friendship. In 1942, after Guo’s five-act historical play about Qu Yuan debuted, Fu then created his very first Portrait of Qu Yuan, perhaps quickly recognising the potential of the narrative to comment on contemporary events. It became the prototype for many subsequent works of the same theme (FIG. 4). When Guo Moruo began working on a four-act play based on the life of the mid-Tang Empress Wu (624-705), Fu Baoshi, despite his preoccupation with the landscape genre at the time, painted a portrait of the empress (FIG. 5) the next year. Although it remains unclear whether Guo Moruo encouraged the artist to depict The Song of the Pipa Player, Fu once inscribed Guo’s poem describing a scene from the ancient narrative verse on his painting: “Wet is the Marshal of Jiangzhou’s long blue gown, The boat stands still upon hearing the song of pipa. Even the horse lowers his head in sorrow. The sky is drowned in the cold moonlight.”
SKITTERED BRUSHES, REFINED LINES
‘To depict historical figures is convenient, but it is also challenging. The artist must study them extensively, over a prolonged period of time, and consolidate one’s learnings so that the images come from within – the brush expresses what is already in the heart and mind. It is only through this method can one truly capture the spirit of these figures.’
- Fu Baoshi
The beauty of the line plays an irreplaceable role in the creation of Fu Baoshi’s figure painting. In an essay in the catalogue of his important 1942 exhibition, held in Chongqing, Fu writes of his initial intention of creating figure paintings: to refine and polish his brush lines, learning from wide-ranging sources from the patterns on ancient bronzeware to Qing dynasty flower paintings.
Approaching figure painting through the long history of art, Fu Baoshi establishes clear stylistic connections with ancient masters, and most significantly, Gu Kaizhi (c. 344-406). Fu is arguably indebted to the Eastern Jin master for the use of fine lines: with tautly controlled brushwork, he contours his figures with rounded and flowing lines, evoking the distinctive gossamer-like brushstrokes historically associated with Gu Kaizhi. Reviving the traditional techniques by skilfully employing the centred tip of the paint brush, the artist achieves a clarity of form evident in even the twists and turns of the brush in the depiction of the beautiful draping and creasing of the garments. The line here is slender, curved and consistent, without much variation in shape.
In The Song of the Pipa Player, the facial expressions and details of the figures are painstakingly rendered with a technique known as sanfeng, or the split bristle brush, by pressing the brush down forcefully to split and spread the bristles. This is most visible in Fu’s depiction of facial hair of the male figures, as well as the bushy eyebrows and eyelashes – framing the windows to the soul with the greatest delicacy and sensitivity. By truly capturing the spirit and emotion of the figures, Fu Baoshi makes a revolutionary breakthrough in the figure painting genre in the history of modern painting in China.
BETWEEN ART AND POETRY
In The Song of the Pipa Player, Fu Baoshi brings to the fore the narrative details and nuances palpable in the poem by Bai Juyi, carefully remaining faithful to the verses in his work. The artist’s attention to narrative details gives the painting a powerful sense of historical authenticity. What sets Fu Baoshi apart in his depiction of figures is his belief in the ability of images to impart emotion through human drama: for the artist, creativity is sustained by feelings.
“One night by the riverside I bade a friend goodbye; In falling maple leaves and reed flowers the autumn sighed.”
A tall maple tree, spanning from the lower left corner to the upper right, shading much of the painting, dominates the composition. The reeds and reed flowers growing by the tree are rendered with two shades of turquoise, clearly indicating the autumn season and further setting the melancholic tone of the work.
“I dismounted the horse as my guest boarded the boat, with no music, we raised our glasses to toast.”
Here, the poet and his guest are placed prominently on the boat, while the horseman and two servants are seen waiting on the shore. In the chill, one servant holds his hands in his sleeves for warmth, standing back-to-back with the other figure.
“Drunk, but without joy, we said farewell in misery, The cold moon reflected on the river, shrouded in mist.“
A light, greyish green colour fills the pictorial space behind the group of figures in the upper left corner. A silver of the moon is visible in the background.
“Who wept the most in the audience? The Marshal of Jiangzhou, his long blue gown is all but soaked.“
Fu Baoshi focuses on the three protagonists – the poet, his guest, and the pipa player – in his depiction. The figure of the pipa player differs vastly from previous works by the artist: here, she is shown with a lowered head and a downward gaze, concentrating only on her music as sorrow clouds her features. Looking forlornly into the distance, the guest appears pensive and lost in thought while the Marshal of Jiangzhou, the poet himself, is so moved by the music that his eyes are flooded with tears. Frozen in time, the moment the artist captures is one saturated with profound sadness.
As the artist posits that painting is not unlike a poem, a song or a beautiful essay, The Song of the Pipa Player takes the classical poem as source material and yet is independent of it in depth and complexity, transcending time and space. Because of the artist’s interest in and love for classical literature and poetry, he was able to fully interpret the emotions of the poet and the pipa player a thousand years apart, conjuring a timeless, moving masterwork that continues to speak to viewers today.
MUSIC OF THE HEART
‘I believe that a painting should be like a poem, a song, or a beautiful essay. So painting should just be like composing, singing, or writing. Poetic sentiments manifest themselves in Wang Wei’s art, which naturally proves the truth in treating painting as silent poetry. To view the work of Ni Zan, Wu Zhen, Bada Shanren and Shitao is not unlike hearing a sorrowful tune, from the depths of the mountains, on a cold, silent night.’
- Fu Baoshi
The epic narrative poem The Song of the Pipa Player by Bai Juyi was composed in the year 816, the eleventh year of Emperor Xianzong’s reign. In the years preceding the creation of the poem, Bai was serving as an official at the imperial court and, perhaps unwisely, made enemies at a tumultuous time: he was known to satirise the actions of corrupt officials in his poetry and political commentary, in stark contrast with the suffering of the common people. In 815, over the fraught situation between the court and the rebels in late Tang, the chancellor Wu Yuanheng (758-815) was assassinated, triggering a series of unfortunate events that led to the demotion and exile of Bai Juyi.
Banished to the provincial Xunyang away from the capital, as the Marshal of Jiangzhou, Bai Juyi devoted himself to poetry, which was often mournful and full of sorrow. The Song of the Pipa Player tells the story of a chance encounter between the poet and a pipa player who was once a celebrated musician in the capital. On a cold, frosty autumn night, when the poet was seeing a friend off on a boat, he suddenly heard beautiful, melancholic music from a neighbouring boat and invited the musician to join them. She played and sang about her faded beauty and wasted talent, reminiscing about her fame in the capital and lamenting the passing of time. It became apparent that the pipa player and the poet both serendipitously suffered from the vicissitudes of life as the poet sighed: ‘Both of us in misfortune lost at the end of the world, does it matter that we have only just met, if our hearts understand?’
For centuries, with its powerful visual imagery, The Song of the Pipa Player has provided generations of artists and poets with the perfect allegory for the frustration of one’s unrecognised talent. Artists as early as Guo Xu (1456-1532) depicted the meeting between the poet and the pipa player (FIG. 7); it is known that Tang Yin (1470-1524) and Qiu Ying (1494-1552) also illustrated scenes from the poem. In the twentieth century, the appeal of the poem remained as strong as ever: Li Keran (1907-1989) and Fang Rending (1901-1975) both created works on the theme. While the painting by Li Keran (FIG. 8) merely shows the two protagonists devoid of any background, Fang Rending produced a group of 22 paintings, fastidiously illustrating the different lines of the poem, including the couplet about the bleak living environment of the poet (FIG. 9).
ART IN AN AGE OF REVOLUTION
The Song of the Pipa Player was created in 1945, the last year of the Second World War. Then, Fu Baoshi was living in poverty since settling in Chongqing in 1939, after travelling through Wuhan and Guilin. At the foothills of Jingangpo in the suburb he and his family lived in a simple lodging with two small rooms, and in order to paint, he had to ask his wife and children to step outside – for the room was small and the family only had one table. Yet, despite the hardships, he drew inspiration from classical literature and history and painted indelible images in a completely fresh mode of expression.
With fluid, curving lines and robust, textured strokes, he created original imageries with such immediacy that the painting speaks strongly for itself, enlivened with a heroism perhaps particularly poignant at a time of war and revolution. The artist’s daughter once commented that Fu’s paintings do not ‘evoke excessive sentimentality, but instead radiate a comforting, spiritual beauty.’ With the music still lingering in the air, The Song of the Pipa Player is a powerful affirmation of this statement.