Rice Cutter, 1946. Watercolor on silk, 54 × 40 cm.

As a member of China’s first generation of foreign-trained oil painters who came of age during the Republican era, Pang Xunqin led a rich and varied life. At age nineteen, he left to study in Paris and returned when he was twenty-four. He founded the Storm Society, China’s first and most important modern art association. In addition, he was a master of Chinese modern art and founded one of China’s earliest design organizations, the Daxiong Industrial Art Society. During the Nationalist era he worked mainly as a professional artist, but after 1949 he became an outstanding educator and scholar. Yet Pang had his share of adversity. His most creative periods occurred alongside war and turmoil. Although he founded the Central Academy of Arts and Design, he served as associate dean for just one year before being branded as a rightist for the next twenty-two. Only one or two out of every ten of Pang’s paintings survive today; of the rest the lesser portion was destroyed during the Sino-Japanese war and the greater portion during the Cultural Revolution. Because of this, the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy’s “Son of Earth: the Exhibition of Pang Xunqin’s Works during the 1930s and 1940s” [sic] only represents a small portion of Pang’s life work.

The exhibition joins art objects and documentation, using an academic, classificatory approach toward understanding Pang and the times he lived in. The works on display consist mostly of watercolors (there are no oil paintings) including Pang’s unique and quite successful work on silk scrolls. His watercolors on silk have a distinctive texture, their colors cool and richly layered. Unlike oil on canvas, in which new paint can cover over old, watercolor on silk is clean and transparent. The brushstrokes are easily seen and one cannot cover up mistakes. Among these works are Pang’s paintings of the Miao people, and the works display deep and profound vitality transforming into a simple and solemn energy. Pang visited eighty different villages in the Guizhou countryside to gain firsthand visual material in order to better portray Miao life. This direct field research confirms Pang’s unique interest in tradition. He did not pursue the literati painting tradition, but rather a continuation of the five thousand-year-old tradition of inspired folk creation by nameless craftsmen.

When Pang was studying in Paris, he reached the following conclusion concerning the European art trends of the time: “The reason France has become a world art center is because of its flourishing decorative arts.” French decorative arts directly influenced Pang’s formalist artistic style, particularly his interest in art deco and architecture, unique among his generation; upon his return to China, this interest also played a deciding role in Pang’s choice of profession and research specialty. Pang’s greatest academic work was “Research in Chinese Dynastic Decorative Painting,” on which he spent the greater part of the second half of his life (from when he was branded a rightist in 1958 up to his death in 1985). This book survived the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, and its manuscript and original illustrations are all on view for the first time, allowing us to see up close Pang’s meticulous work and the hardships he overcame. Pang’s design plans for everyday items, including cases for writing materials, teacups and bowls, cushions and bedsheets, carpets and handbags are also on display. There is a special counter in the exhibition hall displaying ten different painting compilations of Pang’s and studies on him assembled by others. While these objects and documents cannot completely express Pang’s artistic achievement, they are enough to bear witness to one of his lifelong precepts: “Live to make art, make art to strengthen the country.”

Pang is the twelfth artist in the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy’s “20th Century Chinese Fine Arts Masters Exhibition Series,” following Li Kuchan, Wu Zuoren, Zhou Sicong, Li Hu and others. Due to this exhibition series, Beijing Fine Art Academy is one of the best small art spaces for academic exhibitions in China. Of course this profits from China having had a group of patriotic artists like Pang Xunqin, making artistic contributions for the betterment of the nation.      You Yong