Art with a message

Updated 2018-01-30 08:00:01

A visitor stands in front of Xu Beihong's masterpiece, Yugong Yishan, at the ongoing show at the National Art Museum of China.

An exhibition of works by Xu Beihong (1895-1953) celebrates his life and how he encouraged people to strive for independence and righteousness. Lin Qi reports.

Master artist Xu Beihong (1895-1953) did two paintings in 1940 illustrating the Chinese fable of Yugong Yishan about a man attempting to move mountains. They are recognized as the best-known pieces in his oeuvre.

The story of Yugong Yishan, first mentioned in the fourth-century BC Taoist text Liezi, has been told for generations in Chinese households.

It hails the tenacity of an old man who endeavors to remove mountains that block the path in front of his house. Despite being considered a fool, he firmly believes that his offspring will continue the efforts after he dies.

Xu produced two paintings-an oil work and a classic Chinese ink work-using Indian men as models, during a year's stint in India.

And he didn't place the grey-haired man Yugong in the center, but depicted him turning to one side and talking to a woman. Rather, he highlighted several almost naked, muscular men digging on the mountains in the middle of the painting.

The two works, both titled Yugong Yishan, are now on show at Nation and Era, an exhibition at the National Art Museum of China through March 4 that celebrates Xu's life and how he encouraged people to strive for independence and righteousness.

The men doing the digging in the paintings do not look Chinese: They have darker skin tones, thick, hairy eyebrows and short, curly hair, while men in ancient China normally had long hair.

When Xu was in India, he was invited by Rabindranath Tagore to exhibit and lecture at the Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, which the Nobel laureate had established in 1922.

And students and staff members of the Visva-Bharati University offered to help when they heard that Xu needed models to paint.

Artist Xu Beihong portrays lions in the painting, Huishi Dongjing (1943), to express his confidence in China's victory in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).

Tian Heng and His 500 Retainers (1930), a work based on ancient Chinese literature.

Sketches of these Indian models are also on show at the NAMOC exhibition, as are portraits Xu did for Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, besides Indian landscapes.

In the paintings, Xu also added elephants as carriers of materials, rather than cattle, which were more common in China at that time.

Explaining why he used Indian models, Xu said: "Both the Indians and the Chinese work industriously. We may have different looks but we share the same beliefs."

Xu said the idea to do a work on Yugong Yishan had been in his mind for two decades, but he was motivated to start working on the project by the construction of the Burma Road in the late 1930s.

The road linking Myanmar and Southwest China's Yunnan province was of strategic importance to convey supplies to China during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).

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