Xu Beihong

Name in Chinese
Name in Wade-Giles
Hsü Pei-hung
Related People

Biography in English

Hsü Pei-hung (19 July 1895-26 September 1953), artist, was best known for his mastery of both Chinese and Western painting techniques and for his powerful studies of galloping horses. A native of the Ihsing district of Kiangsu, Hsü Pei-hung was the eldest of six children; he had two brothers and three sisters. His father, Hsü Ta-chang, was a village schoolmaster and craftsman who also taught painting. Hsü Pei-hung began learning to paint at an early age. By the time he was 17, he was helping to support his family by teaching art at several schools in his native district. After his father died in 1914, the young artist went to Shanghai. At first he led a hand-to-mouth existence, and at one point he was forced to return home. But he soon went back to the city and managed to sell a few paintings. By 1916 his work had begun to attract some notice. About this time, he began to study French.

In 1917 Hsü spent nine months studying in Japan. He then secured a post in the newly organized art department at Peking Normal College. In the spring of 1919, through the recommendation of Ts'ai Yuan-p'ei (q.v.), the chancellor of Peking University, the ministry of education awarded him a scholarship for study in France. He went to Paris and studied for a time at the Academie Julien. He then enrolled at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, which was under the direction of Paul Albert Besnard.

Hsü received much encouragement and advice from Pascal Adolphe-Jean Dagnan- Bouveret, a fashionable portrait painter of the period. During his first two years in Paris, Hsü exhibited his work at the Salon des Artistes Fran^ais and the Societe National des Beaux Arts. However, he" sold only one painting, for which he received F. 1,000. His financial situation became difficult wherr the Chinese government, because of political complications, defaulted in its pa^TTient of scholarship money to Chinese students abroad.

Hsü went to Berlin in 1921 and remained there until 1923. He then went back to Paris. In the winter of 1925 he returned to China, visiting Malaya on the way. He made a second trip to Europe in 1926 and finally returned to Shanghai in the autumn of 1927.

Hsü Pei-hung was appointed professor in the newly opened art department of National Central University at Nanking in 1927. He also became head of the art section of Nan-kuo Academy of Fine Arts at Shanghai, which had been founded by T'ien Han (q.v.) to promote a new Western-style drama. That institution was a center of the bohemianism then fashionable in Shanghai, and Hsü Pei-hung affected the long hair, flowing tie, and Parisian mannerisms of the Quartier Latin. In 1929 he was appointed head of the department of fine arts at Peking University, but he resigned in the autumn and resumed direction of the department at Nanking. He soon abandoned European dress for the Chinese gown, an outward change which coincided with a new, and essentially Chinese, development in his painting. He laid aside his palette and oils and took up the Chinese brush again. His painting now combined the free style of the Chinese brush and ink with a Western knowledge of anatomy and academic form. With Hsü Pei-hung as its presiding spirit, Nanking became a flourishing center of the new art in China.

In 1931 a highly successful exhibition of Hsü Pei-hung's paintings was held at Brussels; it was the first showing of modern Chinese art in that city. In May 1933 Hsü was invited to Paris as his country's representative to an exhibition of modern Chinese paintings held in the Musee Nationale des Ecoles Etrangeres. In November, the Berlin Artists' Association invited him to show his own work. He accompanied the modern Chinese painting exhibition to [135] Hsü Pei-hung Frankfurt, Brussels, and Milan. Early in 1934 he was invited to take it to Moscow and Leningrad. He returned to China that summer. In 1935 Hsu went to Kweilin to organize the Kwangsi Provincial College of Art, which later was headed by his student Chang An-chih. In 1937 Hsü's work was exhibited at Canton, Hong Kong, and Changsha. After the Sino- Japanese war broke out, his department at Nanking moved with the university to Chungking, the wartime capital. In 1938 he made a tour of Indonesia and Malaya, where an exhibition of his work was held in Singapore. The proceeds were donated to famine relief in China. In 1939 he went to India at the invitation of Rabindranath Tagore, and in 1940 he exhibited his paintings in Santiniketan and Calcutta. The following year, he held exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and on both occasions the sales proceeds were given to Chinese famine relief Hsü Pei-hung returned to Chungking in 1942, where he became director of the National Art Research Institute founded by the Academia Sinica. In 1944 he became seriously ill; he never regained his health completely. He returned to Peking in 1946 as director of the Academy of Fine Arts. He refused to be evacuated when the Nationalist authorities fled south in the winter of 1948 and retained his Peking post until his death in 1953. He had to conform to the Communist pattern in the arts, but his work was easily reconciled with the new tenets. In addition to his direction of the freshly named Central Institute of Fine Arts at Peking, he was elected chairman of the China Artists' Association and a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. But Hsü Pei-hung was by then a sick man, and in 1 95 1 he suffered a stroke which virtually put an end to his working life. After his death, he was extolled as one of the great artists of modern China, and his house was turned into a memorial museum.

Hsü married three times. The first two unions were dissolved. He had four children, two by his second wife and two by his third wife. Hsü Pei-hung was an artist who could adapt his impeccable technique to any medium and who painted a wide variety of subjects in several styles. His many works included portraits and landscapes in the Western academic manner, figure drawings, animal studies, and large narrative compositions, as well as a series of flower, tree, and bird studies in traditional Chinese style. He mastered the realistic technique of European oil painting and draftmanship to a degree attained by no other Chinese artist of the period. That mastery was typified by two of the large compositions with almost lifesize figures which Hsü painted at Nanking between 1930 and 19J3. One of them, "The Five Hundred Retainers of T'ien Heng," depicts a group of more than 20 people listening in sorrow to the news of a messenger who has just dismounted from his horse. The central figure in the group is a self-portrait of the artist. The arrangement is in the best academic tradition; the drawing is sound; and the anatomy is impeccable. However, to the Western observer there is little to set it apart from hundreds of narrative canvases painted in the art schools of Europe during the early years of this century. The same may be said of "Waiting for Our Liberator," which shows a group of country people in a landscape with trees and a grazing buffalo. The scene epitomizes the studied grouping of the life classes, and the fact that the figures are Chinese seems only to emphasize the contrived effect. An extension of this method may be seen in a much later composition entitled "Yu Kung Moves the Mountain," a mythological work of 1940. In this painting, the artist has again experimented by attempting to combine large-scale Western narrative style with Chinese method and subject, a constant preoccupation throughout his career.

Hsü Pei-hung"s exhaustive exploration of W'estern academism had deep influence on the traditional Chinese-style paintings which were his most important contribution to the art of his time. Among both Chinese and Western art lovers, Hsü's name is most readily associated wdth his pow^erful studies of galloping horses. Hsü Pei-hung's horses are wholly Chinese in conception, but reflect the strong influence of Western visual naturalism. The group of chalk and wash life drawings of horses he made in 1939 demonstrates how much his Chinese paintings owed to his entirely Western grasp of form and anatomy. Horses also appear in many of his earlier narrative compositions in the Western style. In the purely Chinese studies, the sheer vere of Hsü Pei-hung's handling of this traditional medium transmutes the Western realism of the prancing and snorting animals.

Trees and birds also were among Hsü's favorite subjects. The indirect effect of Western naturalism may also be seen in these paintings, although many of them are completely Oriental. His "Black Pig" of 1935 and his "Eagle" of 1940 show Hsü's direct descent from the masters of the past, but in a number of his compositions of animals, birds, and trees he used a new approach to pictorial design, combining a fresh element of representation with the bold simplicity of the old literati painters. Some of his most successful works were portrait drawings. A pencil drawing of Gandhi done about 1940, chalk drawings of a woman's head done in 1942, and two sensitive brush drawings of his wife done in 1943 all bear eloquent testimony to his skill in portraiture.

Collections of Hsü's paintings include: Hsil Pei-hung hua-fan [model paintings by Hsü Peihung], Shanghai, 1939; Hsü Pei-hung hua hsuanchi [selected paintings of Hsü Pei-hung], Peking, 1954; Hsü Pei-hung ti ts'ai-mo hua [Hsü Peihung's watercolor paintings], Peking, 1956; and Hsü Pei-hung yu-hua [oil paintings by Hsü Pei-hung], Peking, 1960.

Biography in Chinese


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