Fu’s life spans several of the major traumas in Chinese and world history in the early to mid-20th century. His works reveal a hypersensitivity to his environment and a scholastic, contemplative modesty in the tradition of the Chinese literatus; they also hint at a life of quiet desperation. One of his prominent seals, affixed to his paintings, reads wangwang zui hou, “drunk as usual,” or, in the catalog’s version, “often after being drunk.”
Born in China’s Jiangxi Province, at the end of the Qing dynasty, Fu Changsheng’s informal art education started in a ceramics shop at age 12. By the age of 18 he had adopted the name Fu Baoshi, or “embracing stones,” which reflected his precocity as a professional seal carver. He spent most of 1932 to 1935 in Tokyo, studying the history and practice of Chinese painting under local teachers, and translating Japanese scholarly works about Chinese art into his native language. In Tokyo he also held his first solo painting exhibition, thanks in part to his relationship with the Chinese scholar Guo Moruo, a fellow sojourner in Japan and later an influential cultural figure closely associated with Mao Zedong. Fu’s works from this period demonstrate the influence of Japanese modernism, itself drawing on a broad range of Chinese, Japanese and Western pictorial traditions. This crucial phase in Fu’s development is detailed in one of the exhibition’s four catalog essays, Shen Kuiyi’s “Kindred Spirits: Fu Baoshi and the Japanese Art World,” which concludes with a noticeable nod to Nanjing: “Japan provided Fu with opportunities and artistic inspiration—but it goes without saying that Fu, like other people in China, also suffered tremendously under Japanese imperialism. What is remarkable is that Fu kept his open-minded attitude toward the arts and also the people of Japan, regardless of the conflicts between the two nations.”
Fu spent most of the late Sino-Japanese war years (1945–49) in Chongqing, teaching, writing, and painting some of his finest misty, moody landscapes, as well as portraits of famous figures from Chinese history. In 1943, Guo Moruo gifted two of Fu’s paintings to Zhou Enlai; such relationships, and interaction with other leading Chinese artists, including Zhang Daqian and Xu Beihong, conferred a cloak of political immunity around Fu. It also paved the way for a number of professional successes and prestigious commissions in the 1950s and 1960s, up to his death in 1965.
In 1950, answering the recently triumphant Communist Party’s call for artists to serve the masses, Fu’s paintings began to incorporate People’s Liberation Army soldiers and Chairman Mao’s poems. At the time, the various manifestations of traditional Chinese culture of which Fu was an exquisite practitioner—painting, calligraphy, seal carving and art history—were being excoriated by cultural apparatchiks; courses in these subjects were dropped from the curriculum at Nanjing University, where Fu taught. But in 1953 his works again received official approval, and he spent the next five years painting, exhibiting, writing, teaching and traveling as an official artist to several Eastern European countries, imbuing scenes of Romanian Navy Day and Irkutsk Airport with subtle charm, while continuing at home to provide brush and ink decorations for the personality cult of Mao, and for the Communist Party.
Fu’s patriotism, or obsequiousness in the service of self-preservation, led to his most famous commission: Such Is the Beauty of Our Rivers and Mountains (1959). In 1959, China celebrated the tenth anniversary of the founding of the PRC by building ten major structures in Beijing; the most prestigious of them was the Great Hall of the People, China’s parliament building and venue for state banquets and top-level meetings. Fu and the artist Guan Shanyue were asked to collaborate on a mural to be hung near the main staircase based on Mao’s 1936 poem, “Snow,” which contains the line, “such is the beauty of our rivers and mountains,” and concludes with an egomaniacal comparison of Mao to several Chinese emperors. One of Fu’s early drafts, included in the show, depicts snow-covered mountains fading into the distance, a slice of the Great Wall, a springtime scene in the foreground and a gradually reddening sky. Contemplating the challenge of such a momentous commission, Fu wrote, “But today [compared to 1936], the ‘sun’ has risen, ‘the east is red,’ and its brightness is reflected on the motherland. Therefore one must paint a red sun in the painting.” Clearly this was sycophancy on an imperial scale, foreshadowing the cult of “solar worship” accorded to Mao in the Cultural Revolution.
And so a bright red sun shone in the upper right quadrant of the first incarnation of the work. Zhou Enlai, however, found it inappropriately small for the setting, and quipped that from a distance, the sun “looks like a duck-egg yolk.” And thus Fu and Guan produced a larger version (not included in the Met exhibition)—a five-and-a-half by nine meter painting with a more conspicuous red sun. This might be called the beginning of Fu’s late “Red Period,” during which, in his remaining years, he continued to produce fine landscapes and figure portraits with political themes, which are still remarkable as period pieces, each with its own hint of kitsch.
The New York exhibition took place in the Met’s slightly claustrophobic Chinese painting galleries. Accompanying Fu’s works were a handful of exquisitely gnarled Chinese scholar’s rocks from the Rosenblum collection. Were these there to add scholarly gravitas and to anchor the show in tradition? Given the political climate Fu endured, a memento from the Great Leap Forward, or a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, first published in 1964, might have been more apt.
The finely produced and illustrated catalog, by CMA curator Anita Chung, with contributions by Julia F. Andrews, Tamaki Maeda, Aida Yuen Wong and Kuiyi Shen, provides a wealth of detailed information about Fu’s life and the art worlds in Japan and China in which he was a key player. Yet the essays fail to get beneath Fu’s skin, to go beyond the official record, leaving his works to speak the artist’s particular language by themselves.