Split into two discretely themed sections, the exhibition revolved around a distilled presentation of Feng’s lifelong project, titled “Paintings on the Preservation of Life” (1929–69). Published in six volumes, this series consists of hundreds of individual manhua (“cartoon”) illustrations with accompanying inscriptions. After the first volume, Feng was encouraged to continue by his mentor, Li Shutong, a seminal modern artist and musician in the 1910s who then became a Buddhist monk known as Master Hongyi. Feng had agreed to produce another album every decade, to be inscribed by Hongyi until the monk’s 100th birthday; however, only the first two volumes were completed before his mentor passed away, leading Feng to seek others to complete subsequent inscriptions.
The first section of the exhibition, titled “Cultivating Life and Soul,” on the second level of the museum, featured 100 black-and-white paintings, largely from the two earliest volumes in the series, seen as the best. Many of these works are straightforward messages about the virtues of not killing animals for food, or of nurturing a humble respect for living things. In an image like Life (c. 1929), Feng’s powerfully restrained aesthetic shines: a single sprig of vegetation springs from a patch of brick wall, symbolizing nature’s resistance to the destructive advance of industrial or urban society. In other works, Feng’s observation is more specifically contemporary. Father and Son (c. 1929) shows a Japanese man and his son, in a mix of traditional and Western clothing, walking into a Japanese restaurant specializing in oyako don—meaning “bowl of parent and child rice,” so named because the dish includes egg and chicken meat on a bowl of rice. Feng’s complex image—a memory of life in Japan, or even semi-colonial Shanghai—is inscribed by Hongyi with an historical poem, and an explanation of the dish’s macabre symbolism of this “vicious cycle” of killing.
The exhibition’s second section, “Creating a World of Compassion,” featured another 200 works that showed an even greater variety of themes, some executed on hanging scrolls and fans. Most were later works, done in color and greater detail (sometimes later versions of earlier works), suggesting Feng’s proximity to traditional painting circles. Most striking, however, were the pointed observations on the human toll of conflict, punctuated by simple, ironic titles. An Honourable Soldier (c. 1938–45) depicts a maimed war veteran hauling his limbless body along the ground, watched ambivalently by two dapper passing gentlemen who were obviously spared the obligation to fight. This could be a critique of the forgotten costs of war amid “progress,” yet equally a comment on the futility of nationalistic self-sacrifice, which confronted Feng throughout his life.
If the progressiveness of Feng’s aesthetic is difficult to grasp today, this is due in part to its very success. His restrained palette and swift line-work, conscious of ink painting traditions, also reflects the print magazine boom and his knowledge of modern woodblock printing. In Japan, in 1921, Feng discovered the work of Takehisa Yumeji, which elegantly combined modern and traditional aesthetic sensibilities with trenchant social observation, and was to remain a lasting influence on him. Back home, Feng readily acknowledged that some Chinese painters—notably Chen Shizeng—had pioneered a casual, socially aware ink painting style a decade earlier.
In 1966, at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Feng was denounced, and made an example of up to his death in 1975. Yet, even during his political persecution, he continued to produce works extolling humanity and compassion. His reputation was posthumously rehabilitated in 1978 by Communist authorities in Shanghai, and now he is rightly appreciated as an artistic pioneer. Untroubled by issues of “East or West,” much of his creative subtlety and political ambivalence remains challenging in the People’s Republic today, as does his unabashed faith in an ethics beyond politics or the market.