A life in the public eye

Updated 2018-09-06 08:47:00

Late Chinese painter Yuan Yunfu, an art professor at Tsinghua University, has long been recognized as a prominent figure in China's decorative arts scene.

Yuan Yunfu may not be a household name, but he's one of the founding fathers of the modern Chinese public art scene, as an ongoing retrospective of his work demonstrates.

Unlike his peers, Yuan Yunfu (1933-2017) is not a household name in China. However, his artist friends Wu Guanzhong and Huang Yongyu, whose paintings have been exhibited widely both at home and abroad, have achieved commercial success.

The late art professor at Tsinghua University has long been recognized as a prominent figure in China's decorative arts scene and is one of the founding fathers of Chinese contemporary public art. Many of his paintings adorn the interiors of landmark venues in Beijing, where visitors walk past, or stop to take a snap, without knowing anything about the man behind these artworks.

Yuan's works were among the first wall paintings installed in Beijing's subway stations in the early 1980s. He created a painting to adorn the platform of Jianguomen station, one of the most bustling interchanges of the subway network. The colorful artwork, composed of 3,000 ceramic tiles, traces the history of astronomy in China; the motif echoes the Beijing Ancient Observatory - built in the mid-15th century - that still stands outside the station.

Yet, the most notable public artworks in Yuan's oeuvre are arguably Mountains and Waters of Sichuan, one of the seven wall paintings that were unveiled at terminal one of Beijing Capital International Airport in 1979, and A Thousand Li of the Yangtze River, a lengthy landscape that hangs inside the "Golden Hall" on the third floor of the Great Hall of the People.

These two works were actually developed from different sections of one original painting, which Yuan created more than 40 years ago to depict a panoramic view of the Yangtze.

In 2011, Yuan, with the assistance of his artist son Yuan Jia, recreated the painting, titled A Thousand Li View of the Yangtze River. The 10-meter-long ink scroll is the heart of Bright Glory: The Aesthetics of Yuan Yunfu, an exhibition that runs through Oct 7 at the Tsinghua University Art Museum, which reviews a career as both an artist and an educator which spanned more than six decades.

His oil painting on canvas of Shaoxing's Luxun Road.

Yuan Yunfu once said: "I need to summon all my courage to do an exhibition. It is like I'm making a whip, and handing it to the people who come to see my work so that they could 'spur' me on."

Yuan Jia the son says: "My father didn't want lavish compliments from people. He hoped to hear criticism. He'd love to know what else he could do to progress and improve."

The dozens of paintings on display shine a particular light on Yuan's talent for matching colors.

A Thousand Li View of the Yangtze River exemplifies Yuan's smart combination of the cold and warm tones of blue, green and gray, the three dominant colors that make up the painting. It accentuates the splendor of the natural scenery along the Yangtze, in which mountain ranges are engulfed by ascending mist as the sun rises. It also depicts major urban conurbations and man-made structures along the river, beginning with a metropolitan view of Shanghai, continuing past the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge and the Three Gorges before ending in the city of Chongqing.

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