Friday, November 6, 2009

Another Year to Heaven

Last Friday I visited a small museum dedicated to the life and work of Xu Beihong 徐悲鸿 (1895-1953) , the first president of the PRC's Central Academy of Fine Arts and one of the most influential Chinese painters of the 20th century.

The museum is wonderful, but actually I found myself there more or less by accident. Last Friday was my birthday. I had planned to celebrate it by exploring the newly refurbished Capital Museum in downtown Beijing. There are a lot of museums in Beijing, but the Capital was a natural first choice. It's just off Tiananmen Square, right in the heart of the city center. The building is sleek and imposing -- ultra-modern, über-chic. From the outside, at any rate, it looks like a precise reflection of the kind of city into which Beijing has begun to shape itself, the kind of country China is hoping to become.

And, according to reports, the interior of the museum only adds to this effect. Special exhibits from all over the world are displayed in wide halls equipped with state-of-the-art, ecologically responsible systems for regulating temperature and humidity. There are cafes, lounges, conference rooms and restaurants. Admission is free. This is the new New China. She's not taking a backseat to anyone.

As I checked bus routes and closing times, it suddenly struck me that, actually, the Capital Museum hadn't attracted me because it is glossy and well-appointed. What I was really drawn to was the desire it seemed to embody -- the determination to inhabit a world characterized by a confluence of the graceful and the functional, the right-minded and the urbane. Or, more precisely, the desire not merely to inhabit such a world, but to belong there, to contribute to it. No doubt this desire is attractive partly because the world it projects is so appealing, but I think the allure stems still more from its seeming to define modernity itself in such welcome, beckoning terms -- sleek, civilized, inventive, knowing. It invites a sense of delighted arrival: So this is what the new century looks like!

But then, just before setting out, I discovered that the Capital Museum requires its patrons to make reservations at least a day in advance. So, I started thumbing through my guidebook to Beijing and eventually settled on the Xu Beihong Memorial Museum, which is tucked away on a narrow street in the western part of the city.

I knew the Xu Beihong Memorial would be a far cry from the Capital Museum, and so it was. The galleries were dingy, institutional and mostly ill-lit. If the building was heated at all, it wasn't so you'd notice. I paid a reluctant visit to the toilets and found -- with chagrin but small surprise -- that it certainly wasn't the new New China there.

But, in another sense, the Memorial turned out to offer a vision of modernity that was at least as compelling as the one suggested by the Capital.

Though Xu was perhaps best known for his traditional ink-and-brush paintings of galloping horses, he also had a profound capacity for innovation. As a young man, he travelled around Europe and studied art in Paris. On his return home in 1927 he helped introduce Western techniques into the Chinese art world, devoting the remainder of his life to the creation of a new national aesthetic based on a combination of Western and Chinese approaches.

The collection on display at the museum reflects this versatility. The first and second exhibition halls feature traditional brush paintings. There are clumps of bamboo, austere in black ink. There are stands of pine and cypress, pure, massive, and commanding. There are cranes and sparrows, cats and oxen; there are magpies and one magnificent eagle. And, of course, there are the famous horses, some running and some at rest, so beautiful they stop your breath.

On the second floor there are dozens of oil paintings, including some vast canvases depicting epic scenes drawn from myth and history. One such scene features a peasant woman in the dress and headscarf of early China. She is seated on the ground cradling a nursing infant. Something in her expression and attitude, in the scale of her body and her placement amongst the rest of the composition, suggests a curious kind of unfleshed Dutch realism, firm and precise but sparing of detail. Striking an entirely different note, there are several smaller studies of seated women whose veiled but glowing colors and quiet, almost remote intensity put me in mind of Edward Hopper. Different again but equally arresting, Xu's colleague Ren Bonian gazes shrewed-eyed out of an unassuming portrait. I don't know what creates this effect -- whether it is the way the subdued colors bring out the planes of his face, or the angle of his head against a certain degree of back lighting, or what -- but he looks for all the world like a Renaissance burgher, or perhaps a minor functionary in the court of Henry Tudor.

There is also a hall devoted to scenes of old Beijing. These paintings are executed with a fine brush on small canvases. I think the school or style is French, though I didn't recognize it. At any rate, I kept getting the same kind of shock each time I approached the pictures: what first looked like a standard Parisian cafe with windows open to the street would prove, on closer inspection, to be an old-fashioned tea house or a medicine stall. The Arc de Triomphe, seen from across the room, turned out to be the Drum Tower. And so on. (Of course, no one in their right mind could really confuse Beijing's old Drum Tower with the Arc de Triomphe, but I kept catching myself in the same kind of crazy mistake.)

There are also hybrids of different sort, whose fusion resides not in a combination of Chinese subjects and Western media, but in an integration of Chinese and Western techniques. In one particularly unusual painting, a human figure sits, hands clasped around his knees, beneath a giant tree. The tree is executed in a more or less traditional ink-and-brush style, but the human figure is in Western perspective. He is sketched rather than fully detailed; it is not his form but his place in the composition that is so suggestive of depth and foreshortening. It is almost as if he and the tree under which he meditates occupy different dimensions. I couldn't decide if the effect was pleasing or disturbing, but it was certainly hard to look away.

After I finished my tour of the various exhibition halls, I returned to the horses on the first floor. I looked at them more carefully this time, trying to work out what it was that made them so compelling. I couldn't identify anything in particular. In the end I decided that somehow they just reflected the essence of horse, the way a dirge on the bagpipes captures the essence of mourning, or a sonnet by Shakespeare the essence of desire.

These reflections reminded me of a famous passage in the eighth-century poet Du Fu’s 杜甫 ballad “Painting Song” (丹青引), addressed to the master-painter Cao Ba .


Your pupil Han Gan soon achieved the greatest mastery:
He too could paint horses, giving expression to every possible look.
But Han Gan only paints the flesh; he does not paint the bones,
Thus suffering royal, fiery chargers to fade into spiritlessness.

As I considered Xu Beihong's horses, and Du Fu's remarks on Han Gan, I thought about the idea that there is an essential, ineffable quality that differentiates the competent from the sublime. Of course this is hardly a new concept. In my family we've always called it the "dun-colored mare," after the Po Lo story cited in J.D. Salinger's "Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters." And, indeed, this idea is basic to Chinese critical theory. In Du Fu's poem it takes the form of "painting the bones," but generally speaking it consists of a premium placed on the expression or actualization of an interior essence, unseen but crucial. So, to take just one of many possible examples, the ninth-century poet Bai Juyi 白居易 complains


In the olden days, when people sang songs,
they were also singing feelings;
Nowadays when people sing,

they only sing the notes.

As I thought these things, and reflected on the painstakingly mastered foreign techniques that the paintings upstairs in the oil-gallery embodied, I found myself a little out of sorts. After a while I realized that my dissatisfaction sprang from a sense that something was missing, that there was a bias in the way I was understanding what I was seeing. Or perhaps not a bias so much as a vacuum. After all, the idea that artistic excellence relies on an unseen, ineffable mechanism insists on framing artistic creation as an interior process. It leaves no room for the community of skill that sustains culture of all kinds, artistic and otherwise.

At this point in my meditations, my eye was caught by a glass case standing in the middle of the room. I had been giving all my attention to the paintings on the walls and hadn't noticed it before. Inside the case was a handwritten letter, Xu Beihong's reply to a student's request for instruction. The letter was punctuated by illustrated details and explanatory captions: “raised hoof, angled backwards, the stroke commences here; hock, three-quarter view, lift the brush here; muzzle, quarter view, keep the lines short.”

I don't know if Xu's student profited from these directions or not. Who can say whether he went on to "paint the bones?" But, after reading the letter and looking at the illustrations, I realized two things. First, Xu's paintings of horses do not just reflect the essence of horse: they make the viewer think "How good it is to live in a world with horses in it." And, at the same time, "How good it is to live in a world in which people paint horses."

Second, the Parisian paintings of Beijing, and the Xia woman in her headscarf, and the shrewd-eyed Ren Bonian all represent the dissemination of skill, its transplantation from Europe to China. Xu Beihong's letter to his student represents the preservation of skill, its communication from master to disciple. Whether the results of these two kinds of transmission are sublime or merely proficient, the process itself is nothing less than that which feeds humankind: it is culture, the act of sustained community.

And that, I think, is what we want the new century to look like.