Fresh interpretation of early 20th century Chinese art

Craig Clunas ed Professor Craig Clunas ponders a question from the audience   Photo Paul Harris

Earlier this week, Professor Craig Clunas, Professor of Chinese Art at Oxford University, gave his first lecture in a series of three on 20th century Chinese art for Gresham College (founded 1597). It was a public lecture (with free entry) held at the Museum of London and dealt with the topic China: New Nation, New Art 1911-32.

Clunas took as his starting point a highly unusual painting entitled simply Viewing Pictures (1917) by Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) which proved to be particularly apposite to the topic. It was outstanding as a piece of social observation and both stylistically and subject-wise was untypical not just of Shizeng’s oeuvre, but also that of other painters of the day. The painting includes both Chinese and Western visitors to The National Museum at a private view of the type that probably survives little changed to this day. In 1918, however, such an interaction would have been highly unusual and the picture presages the great changes about to take place, the meeting of East and West in artistic terms.

Craig Clinas Chen Shizeng Viewing Pictures                                   Chen Shizeng Viewing Pictures (1917)

I suppose that many of us had, to a very great extent, hitherto ascribed developments in Chinese art after the First World War directly to the influences of Europe, generally, and Paris, specifically. Clunas, however, brought something of a fresh perspective which has widened my own personal vision and, I suspect, that of most of the audience. He examined on some detail guohua (national painting) and the developments that took place in that arena, singling out some dramatic images which clearly demonstrated filtered influences from Europe.

I was particularly intrigued by the Liu Haisu painting Qianmen Gate: a dramatic image of the towering bulk of the architectural mass that was the gate with turbulent clouds behind. If I had been obliged to guess the name of the artist, I would probably have come out with Frank Brangwyn!

Liu Haisu Tianneman Gate Liu Haisu Qianmen Gate

Clunas used two devices to progress his analysis of the period 1911-32. He delved deep into the pages of the Shanghai art magazine Liangyou Luabao, which is the sole source for many images of paintings lost in the turbulent tide of Chinese modern history, and he chose two painters to tell the story: Xu Beihong (1895-1953), particularly, and, to a lesser extent Lin Fengmian (1900-91). It is his view that Beihong, known simply to millions as the man who painted furipusly galloping horses, was central to the development of Chinese art during the 1920s (“a massive influence”). Quite apart from his writing and educational work, he was responsible in large part for the introduction of Western artistic materials to China.

Xu Beihong              Xu Beihong Self Portrait

Professor Clunas will give two further lectures for Gresham College at The Museum of London on February 19 and May 14 2018 under the titles China: Art, War and Salvation 1933-49 and China: Art, Power and Revolutions 1950-76.