At 6:30 pm on April 12, 2018, the lecture on “The Relationship between Xu Beihong and Japanese Fine Arts – Based on Xu Beihong’s Commentary on ‘Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition’ ” was held at the Auditorium of the CAFA Art Museum, and it was the 5th round of the series of lectures during the “Celebration of the Centennial of the Central Academy of Fine Arts: Xu Beihong–Living Art Forever”. The speaker Hua Tianxue is a research fellow of China National Academy of Arts, and it was hosted by Gao Gao, Assistant Director of CAFA Art Museum and Head of the Department of Curatorial Research of CAFA Art Museum. In the lecture, based on the documents of Japanese history of exhibitions and images that she recently discovered, Hua Tianxue examined the commentary on “Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition” written by Xu Beihong that attempts to explore the influence of the trip to Japan on Xu Beihong’s art.
At the beginning of the lecture, Hua Tianxue briefly introduced the studies of Xu Beihong’s trip to Japan. Xu Beihong traveled to Japan from May to November in 1917, which had been briefly recorded by the researchers and there was an announcement that his road to painting formally started during his overseas study of western painting in France in 1919. It took Xu Beihong six months to write three articles including “Methods to Improve Chinese Paintings”, “The Beauty and Art of Paintings”, and “A Review of Wenhua Hall’s Collection of Paintings and Calligraphy” after he returned to China from Japan. With a set of rigorous and mature ideas, the three texts were part of a programme during his artistic life. Hua Tianxue believed that the trip to Japan played an important role in the formation of Xu Beihong’s art and his artistic ideas.
Hua Tianxue then briefly expounded on Xu Beihong’s trip to Japan and the article of “Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition”. Xu Beihong was invited by “Shi Bao” to write a text on the introduction of “The 11th Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition” held in 1917. A total of 172 Japanese paintings, 92 Western paintings and 60 sculptures were presented. Xu Beihong chose and made comments on 29 Japanese paintings, 3 Western paintings and 1 sculpture, including 12 landscape paintings, 11 figure paintings and 6 flower-and-bird paintings. Hua Tianxue compared this article with the records of the “Japanese History of Exhibitions” vol.5, which was discovered during the period of her travel to Japan last year. She examined each record in the catalog and analyzed what Xu Beihong focused on and made a comment on, attempting to use Xu Beihong’s choices to reflect his judgments in art history.
Hua Tianxue said that the 12 landscape paintings selected by Xu Beihong were similar to Chinese traditional landscape paintings in terms of brushwork and composition. A group of paintings themed on four landscapes by Shoda Tsurutomo were praised by Xu Beihong. They used traditional Chinese composition and portrayed the water, stones and trees in a style similar to Western landscape paintings. Hua said that Xu Beihong was interested in the paintings of the features of Chinese paintings but they were not Chinese paintings. Xu Beihong also made comments on the landscape paintings that portrayed the objects with lines and strokes. Xu Beihong made a comment on Kawai Gyokudo’s “The Eve of Lunar October” which was “thick and tasteful” but it also seemed to be “weak in the breath, so it is not his masterpiece”. Hua Tianxue believed that Xu Beihong made this judgment which was in line with his comment on Ni Zan’s paintings and was recorded in the “Methods to Improve Chinese Paintings”. He wrote a text on the “Art Situation in France” in 1926 and declared that “As far as Chinese paintings are concerned, the Northern School is better than the Southern School.” The Southern School was only skilled in the portrayal of the “natural and unrestrained state”, while the Northern School started with meticulous paintings, and pursued a realistic style. In 1935, he wrote an article on “Treasure Paintings in the Collections of the Palace Museum”, and announced that Chinese literary paintings were at a low tide because of “Four Masters in the Yuan Dynasty” who promoted the “flexible and elegant” artistic conception.
9 pieces among the 11 figure paintings chosen by Xu Beihong performed classical Chinese themes, which revealed Xu Beihong’s special interest and sensitivity towards the works of Chinese classical subjects that appeared in the Japanese painting circles. Getting through Xu Beihong’s artistic career, Hua found that Xu preferred these subjects, and Hua believed that it was directly associated with Japanese elements that people ignored, although it might also be affected by French art. Xu Beihong early made a comment on the history painting of “Confucius and His Four Disciples” based on the historic textual research, but he completely abandoned textual research and portrayed nudes in the large-scale Chinese painting of “When Faith Moves Mountains”, and it caused an argument with Chen Zhenxia and other people. In fact, Xu Beihong’s French teachers made their personal interpretations of historical figures in the creation, and they also encouraged students to create their own personal expressions, which was also the tradition of Xu Beihong’s alma mater école nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts de Paris. Obviously, Xu Beihong inherited the context of France in the creative practice of historical painting, and he also took it as the general principle to argue with Chen Zhenxia. Therefore, Hua Tianxue said that Xu Beihong would make a different comment on “Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition” as he had different ideas when he returned to China after studying in France.
Another 5 figure paintings presented excellent plots. Although Xu Beihong did not exclude the portraying of the lower classes, he was in pursuit of the beautifying of reality. Hua Tianxue said that the beautification of reality had run through Xu Beihong’s life. Based on the logic of the article of “The Beauty and Art of Paintings”, the fictional beautiful picture should be the most ideal state of art pursued by Xu Beihong. In the end, Xu Beihong chose the Japanese flower-and-bird paintings that portrayed the common subjects of Chinese flower-and-bird paintings.
After analyzing “Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition” in which Xu Beihong made comments on the Japanese landscapes, figure paintings, and flower-and-bird paintings, Hua Tianxue then talked about the connection between Xu Beihong and “Japan”. She said that Xu Beihong’s comments on “Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition” did not only reveal that he once paid attention to this and also suggested he might be influenced by Japanese art.
For example, after Xu Beihong returned to China from France, he improved the Chinese paintings and created the original experimental paintings themed on a group of huge geese. The exhibition presented the “The Oleander Courtyard” of Hashimoto Nijikake that portrayed four geese walking under the oleander trees in the “Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition”. For example, Xu Beihong created the huge Chinese painting of “Boatmen” in 1931. The middle of the boat was portrayed and covered more than half of the screen. It portrayed two boatmen struggling to row the boat and the water and the distant mountains placed in the four corners and the close shot was blocked by a tree. There were many works that had a similar theme and similar composition in this exhibition. They often portrayed a big boat and big boatmen that horizontally lie in the middle of the screen. The majority of Xu Beihong’s large-scale thematic figure paintings used “horizontal composition”, such as “Tian Heng Five Hundred Soldiers”, “Wait for Me”, “Boatmen”, “Jiufang Gao” and “When Faith Moves Mountains”, etc., so that the horizontal composition used in Xu Beihong’s paintings originated from the trip to Japan.
Afterwards, reviewing Xu Beihong’s conclusion of “Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition”, Hua Tianxue analyzed Xu Beihong’s opinions on the Japanese Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition and Japanese paintings, as such all the exhibited works were outstanding; many paintings were large, often portraying a big tree which was realistically portrayed; Japanese flower-and-bird paintings realistically portrayed objects, but he said it was not surprising to compare them with the Chinese bird-and-flower paintings; Japanese landscape paintings were perfect, and were even on a par with the ancient Chinese landscape paintings. In Xu’s “Methods to Improve Chinese Paintings”, he presented his opinions that there were not an improvement of flower-and-bird paintings, but it established the “improvement of landscape paintings”. However, Xu Beihong put forward that the foundation of Western paintings was poor in Japan, so that Western paintings in Japan showed a lacklustre performance. This is the reason why Xu Beihong ultimately chose overseas study in France. He attempted to study the original “classical realism”.
At the end of the lecture, Hua Tianxue said that Xu Beihong hardly thought about Japan in his theoretical thinking, but it did not mean his creative ideas and specific forms and approaches were not associated with Japanese paintings. Hua Tianxue believed that Xu Beihong avoided recording Japanese paintings in his theories due to the reality of the Sino-Japanese war and nationalism. However, “Japanese factors” appeared in the formation of Xu Beihong’s artistic thoughts and the improvement of Chinese paintings. Therefore, she concluded that Xu Beihong’s artistic thoughts, artistic direction, and even the arrangement of composition were influenced by Japanese art, in addition to French art that he had studied for 8 years. Hua Tianxue said she was looking for more material as evidence.
Text by Yang Zhonghui, translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
Photo by Li Biao from CAFA Art Museum