Fu Baoshi Retrospective Premieres at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) is at the Cleveland Museum of Art until January 8th.

A couple of weeks ago I got to check out the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new special exhibit when they hosted a Young Professionals Night to kick off the exhibit’s opening.

Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) is the first retrospective of Fu Baoshi’s work in the Western Hemisphere.  It’s at the Museum until January 8th.

To bring the exhibit to Cleveland, the Cleveland Museum of Art partnered with the Nanjing Museum, one of the oldest and most comprehensive museums in China, and the Musashino Art University in Tokyo. After the artist’s death in 1965, the Nanjing Museum worked with his family to store and preserve his works — saving them from destruction during China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

At the Bamboo Grove Young Professionals Night, we were guided through the exhibit by curator Anita Chung.  As we started, she shared how the exhibit traces Fu Baoshi life — demonstrating how his personal self-discovery and struggles over time were reflected in his evolution as an artist.  

While each room in the exhibit chronologically covers a different stage in Fu Baoshi’s development, they also trace the revolutions in art and politics that were happening in Republican and Communist China at the time.

During the Bamboo Grove Happy Hour, guests enjoyed food and drinks while trying their hand at the painting technique Fu Baoshi used in his work

In the first few rooms, we enjoyed seeing Fu Baoshi’s earlier works, which exhibited his traditional landscape and figure paintings. My familiarity with Asian art is lacking, so to see the complexity of emotions that can be expressed in ink brushwork was revealing.  

As we continued to explore the exhibit, we learned how being an art history scholar in addition to an artist influenced a lot of Fu Baoshi’s style — even later in life when others were turning away from traditional styles. 

After the Communist victories in 1949, Fu Baoshi shifted his focus to producing ink and brush work that would speak to China’s people. And then later in the 1950s and 1960s, his landscapes of China’s beautiful natural wonders were used to express the patriotic values of the revolution – even incorporating Chairman Mao Zedong’s poetry. However, although his subject matter changed to fit modern China’s times, he continued to express himself with the beautiful, traditional ink painting he used earlier in life.

As much as I enjoyed his paintings, some of my favorite items in the exhibit were the seals Fu Baoshi created.  When he was younger, Fu had been a sealmaker. And throughout his life, he would continue to carve seals to imprint writing on his artwork. 

Sometimes the seal just had his signature; other times, though, they had poetry or phrases that expressed his mood. 

One of Scott’s and my favorites was the seal he used to imprint any works he made while drinking which expressed “often while being drunk.”  He said of himself that he could only touch the paper with the brush in the right hand if there was a glass of liquor in the left — a trait that was visible in the fluidity of some of his works.

My other personal favorite was the ironic, double-sided seal that said “Obsessed with seals.” 

One of my favorites from the exhibit: Fu Baoshi's Crossing the Dadu River, 1951

Another element that made it one of the more different exhibits I’ve experienced at the Cleveland Museum of Art was the beautiful fabric that each scroll was mounted on.  As I mentioned earlier – I’m not terribly well-versed in Asian Art. I’ve never really attended an exhibit in person so I wasn’t accustomed to seeing how a scrolled painting is mounted. However, after the Fu Baoshi exhibit, I was intrigued by that part of the process.

Much like a frame, selecting a fabric’s pattern and color for a hanging scroll’s mounting is a careful decision — chosen to complement the painting without distracting from it.  However, unlike changing a frame on a Western-style painting, once a scroll is backed with layers of paper and surrounded by a silk fabric, it will remain like that due to the extremely labor-intensive process to change the mounting.

If you go to the Fu Baoshi exhibit, take a look at how the aesthetic of the mountings change from piece to piece. For instance, the hanging scrolls from the early part of his career are surrounded by different kinds of fabric than the ones in the rest of the exhibition.

Those early paintings were created and mounted while he was in Japan and are on loan from the Fu Boashi collection at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo.  They have a Japanese aesthetic, while most of the rest of the artworks, from the Nanjing Museum, have Chinese-style mounting.

Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) is yet another extremely well-presented exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Tickets for the special exhibit are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and college students and $4 for children ages 6 to 17 (free for museum members).  

For only $8, there’s no excuse to miss this exhibit.  If you’re new to Eastern art like I am, Fu Baoshi’s brushwork, seal carvings and mountings are breathtaking examples of the traditional art he was so talented in. And if you are familiar with the style, it’s still worth a visit to see the first-ever Western retrospective of his work.  After it leaves Cleveland in January, you’ll have to travel to the Met in New York to enjoy it.

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