New exhibition compiles the work of artists who were at the forefront of the country's creative renaissance, Lin Qi reports.
In the first half of the 20th century, China saw a rise in the number of people studying abroad. Hundreds of young people embarked on ships, largely heading for Europe, Japan and North America. They hoped that their studies would help pull their homeland out of the abyss of poverty and chaos.
Some boarded a liner that cruised regularly between China and France. They sailed for a month putting up with all the discomforts of sea travel and finally, they arrived in Paris, the world art capital.
The years between 1911 and 1949 saw these talented Chinese, arriving in separate groups, and then becoming well-trained painters, lithographers and sculptors. Among them are Wu Fading, the first to study in France on a government scholarship, according to official documents, who first learned law but then transferred to oil painting; Pang Xunqin, a medical dropout from Shanghai's Aurora University; Pan Yuliang, who was freed from a brothel and studied under her husband's sponsor; and Zao Wou-ki, who left his teaching position and traveled with his first wife and artist Xie Jinglan.
Such artists, roughly 100 in number, contributed significantly to ushering Chinese art, deeply ingrained with outdated rules, into a modern age of greater vibrancy. Until now, no exhibition has given a comprehensive presentation of this collective, but the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where many of the artists once taught, is staging a first-ever group show, Pioneering, at the school's art museum. The exhibition is set to run through March 3.
Exhibition curators did their best to locate the works of some 40 artists, and to loan around 200 paintings and sculptures from museums, galleries and private collectors. The youngest artists featured at the show, Liu Ziming and Lyu Xiaguang, died five years ago, both aged 87.
Philippe Cinquini, the exhibition's French co-curator, who oversees a section that features the works of those French artists who once mentored Chinese students, says each work at the show tells an individual part of history, a journey of adventure and of courageous young men and women crossing continents and oceans to realize a dream of art.
Featured artists include household names, such as Xu Beihong, who was an influential figure on China's course to independence, and Liu Kaiqu, the first director of the National Art Museum of China and a sculptor who participated in several of the country's public projects, including the Monument to the People's Heroes at Tian'anmen Square.
The exhibition also marks those little known artists who died shortly after their career just began, and only a handful of their works have survived.
Shao Dazhen, a pre-eminent art theorist and professor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, says the Chinese artists in France formed a noticeable force to signal Chinese society's attempt to know about the modern world.
"Their work demonstrates how they viewed and dealt with the cultural clashes between China and the West," he says. "They tried hard to master Western fine arts, such as oil painting, watercolor and sculpture; meanwhile, they injected an understanding of Chinese culture into their creations, by which they hoped to reach the ultimate goal-to give Chinese art a modern revival."