Cantor Arts Center stages first-ever U.S. exhibition to spotlight 'national treasures' of 20th-century China
The four Chinese ink painters featured in the Cantor Arts Center's exhibition survived persecution, insult and neglect to redefine and revivify an ancient art form.
In the West, they are little known. But on the other side of the Pacific, they are national treasures who redefined an ancient art form – insistently painting with ink through the worst vicissitudes of the 20th century, including the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Now Western audiences will have a chance to view the work of the men known as "Four Great Masters of Ink Painting" in a new exhibition at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center. The exhibition "Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future: Master Ink Painters in 20th-Century China" presents over 100 of their works through July 4.
The rare and important group exhibition is the first major U.S. showing for the four Chinese modern masters: Wu Changshuo (1844–1927), Qi Baishi (1864–1957), Huang Binhong (1865–1955) and Pan Tianshou (1897–1971). The works are borrowed from important state collections in China.
"This landmark exhibition illuminates a turning point in the development of Chinese ink painting during the 20th century," said Xiaoneng Yang, the center's curator of Asian art.
Pan Tianshou's "This Land So Beautiful" bears a congratulatory dedication on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, with an inscription from Mao Zedong's "Snow Poem." Yet a decade later, during the Cultural Revolution, its symbolism was denounced as treacherous.
Patience Young, curator for education, said the exhibition "is remarkable as a collaboration between Stanford and colleagues in China."
This exhibition is giving visitors from Stanford an opportunity to learn about these major artists in China," she said. "They are known as the 'Four Masters' of 20th-century painting."
The exhibition highlights Stanford's increasing presence in the world of Asian art, which has been underscored in recent years by:
• The 2008 appointment of Yang to be the center's Patrick J. J. Maveety Curator of Asian Art. Yang, an internationally recognized Chinese scholar who has worked and published in the United States and China, develops exhibitions at the center and organizes the presentation of traveling exhibitions. He is in charge of one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections among university museums in the West, now including more than 4,500 works ranging from the third millennium B.C. to the 21st century. He also teaches classes at Stanford.
• The appointment of Professor Xiaoze Xie, a Guandong-born painter who has exhibited in major museums and is considered at the top of his field, to the Stanford art faculty last year.
• The launching of the Stanford Asian American Art Project, founded and directed by history Professor Gordon Chang (with Mark Dean Johnson); the project studies Asian American artists and is bringing many forgotten or neglected artists and their artwork to light. In 2008, the project published Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, with Stanford University Press.
Drawing upon paintings and calligraphy on loan from Chinese collections new to American audiences, the new exhibition includes monumental portraits, vibrant bird-and-flower paintings and spectacular landscapes.
The pieces included in the exhibition "appear to be related to traditional painting styles, and yet they are reflecting the great uproar of changes in modern China," said Young. "The Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, and there were a series of upsetting, unsettling, distressing aspects of political life throughout the 20th century that these artists were coping with, dealing with, sometimes commenting on indirectly through their painting." The artists nevertheless "managed to maintain the dignity and the discipline" of their art.
The four Chinese artists included in the current exhibition were neither traditionalist nor modernist. Either direction risked censure and worse as they attempted to redefine Chinese art in the modern era.
As the artists attempted to incorporate realism and blend a complicated network of political and cultural currents, they also tried to maintain the best of a form that was part of a centuries-old national heritage.
According to Yang, "These artists faced the dual challenges of negotiating the impact of encounters with the West while inventing new directions for long-held practices of ink painting."
Progress of Chinese painting came to an end during the decade of the Cultural Revolution with a number of violent consequences, and also some less-publicized ones – it interrupted the critical relationship of mentor to protégé essential for the art form, for example. The decades since have seen a new vitality as artists began to experiment; ink painting has endured as one of China's prominent arts.
An international symposium, "The Politics of Culture and the Arts in Early 20th-Century China" will be held Feb. 19-21. Cosponsored by Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, the Center for East Asian Studies and the Department of Art and Art History, the symposium is free and open to the public.
In collaboration with the Stanford Pan-Asian Music Festival, the Cantor Arts Center is sponsoring a series of "elegant gatherings," an ancient term for a meeting of scholars and artists who share of their knowledge and friendship. Under the guidance of music Professor Jindong Cai, each of the Thursday evening gatherings at the Cantor Arts Center Auditorium, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18, April 8 and May 27, will use live performance to explore music and its relationship to ink painting, calligraphy, poetry, faith and healing in Chinese tradition.
A 440-page, fully illustrated catalog with scholarly essays in English, including two introductory essays and essays on each artist, accompanies the exhibition.
Admission to the museum and to the exhibition is free. The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday to 8 p.m. Information: (650) 723-4177, museum.stanford.edu.
Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, firstname.lastname@example.org
Anna Koster, Cantor Arts Center: (650) 725-4657, email@example.com