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‘Chinese Art’ exhibit at CMA is must see

10/27/2011 - West Side Leader
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By Roger Durbin

Fu Baoshi’s “Heaven and Earth Glowing Red” is on view at Cleveland Museum of Art.
Photo courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art
CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Museum of Art’s current exhibit, Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-65), is a rare special exhibit that you really need to take in before it ends its engagement at the museum Jan. 8 and moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

For starters, besides the honor that Cleveland will see the exhibit first, this display represents the first time these wonderfully austere and poignantly rich ink and watercolor drawings have been seen outside of mainland China (specifically the city of Nanking and its museum) and very early pieces from the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, where the artist studied at the beginning of his career.

There’s also the consideration that the presentation of the materials is expertly done and seemingly artistic in its own right. White or dark gray walls set off the Baoshi artwork perfectly. Most of the works are hanging scrolls from the Nanking Museum and are quite large. Some dominant works are lighted through downward facing lamps, which create a mysterious, sometimes somber, and almost elagaic atmosphere conducive to the exhibition of these subtle and highly evocative and emotional works.

The works themselves, however, are the piece de resistance. In artistic terms, the phrase “he wears his heart on his sleeve” takes on understandable nuance through the works of Baoshi. In the few landscape pieces displayed in the first gallery, which illustrate works from the early period of the 1930s and pay homage to traditional Chinese ink drawings, the viewer can appreciate the eager and energetic talent that was developing. Baoshi’s energy, liveliness and passion for his art leap from the paper drawings on silk scrolls.

One work, titled “Mountain Spirit,” pretty much dominates the exhibit and is given special emphasis in a single large panel stuck squarely in the middle of a large gallery. The work derives from the ninth song of an old Chinese collection called “The Nine Songs.” In this piece, the central character in the foreground — a haunting image of a woman awaiting the return of her long-gone lover — gets its emotional force from the swirling wind and rain in which she stands serenely and stoically as she sees a parade of soldiers marching off in the distance. Done in shades of gray, the only vivid color is of the mark on her forehead, her pouting lips, the ties of her cape, and a few strands of fabric, which seem to anchor her to the ground. It is a stunning ink and watercolor drawing.

During the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Dedong, even artists were called into the service of the masses. Baoshi clearly struggled with the loss of self and freedom of expression that such a regime could entail. The strain is apparent and inherent in the compositions themselves. Clearly drawn to landscape and the wildness and enormity of nature, Baoshi set nationalistic images against the stirring backgrounds he loved to draw. In “Crossing the Dadu River,” one is reminded of a similar work of George Washington crossing the Delaware River in our own revolutionary times. Yet in Baoshi’s work, the impressionistic quality and character of the work doesn’t get subjected to the political overtones clearly expected. Perhaps because his works are so good, he was able to escape rebuke and sharp critique.

One thing that is interesting for the new observer of Chinese scroll drawings is the tradition of adding text (some of it quite extensive) as well as seals along the sides and bottoms of the works. Anita Chung, who curated the exhibit, said in an interview the artist would likely tell about the scene — when he was there, what he was doing, how he was feeling and how the scene before him made him feel, along with any technical information he wanted to add about the work itself. In his fashion, the artist did most of the work for an art historian.

Baoshi liked working with engraving seals onto precious and semi-precious stones. There are many in cases along the walls of the various galleries in this exhibit. The seals, as Chung explained them, could express what he was doing at the time (like working with a group of people on a project and the individual piece was his contribution), his state of mind (one is for his state of mind after an evening of drinking), or a particular mood he wanted to express in the work (like happiness before the grandness of the provincial Chinese mountains).

Tickets are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and college students, $4 for ages 6-17 and free for CMA members. For tickets, call 888-262-0033 or visit www.ClevelandArt.org. CMA is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. CMA is closed on Mondays.

Roger Durbin is professor emeritus of bibliography at The University of Akron and an avid art enthusiast. To contact him, email r.durbin@sbcglobal.net.

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