8 Sides of Chinese Artist Xu Beihong

Xu Beihong, “Two Racing Stallions,” 1942. Ink and color on paper. Sold for $140,000 via Gianguan Auctions (March 2014).

In the first half of the 20th century, few artists could be said to be as worldly as Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻). The son of an itinerant portrait artist, Xu was born in China’s rural Jiangsu province during the summer of 1895. By the end of his life, he would be known as a pioneering master of both Western-style oil paint, as well as traditional Eastern ink-wash compositions. He is remembered in China as one of the “Four Great Academy Presidents,” a figurehead of modern Chinese art whose vision and guidance led to the emergence of a national artistic movement in the 20th century. He ultimately helped to define a Chinese identity during a period of extreme instability and upheaval in the region as numerous wars raged and regimes were toppled.

In the West, Xu is remembered today for one of his favorite themes: his masterful renditions of horses in ink, through which he is able to conjure a sense of fluidity, majesty, power, and movement using only a few brushstrokes. Although he is known for his signature style and subject matter, Xu was a multifaceted artist whose work is informed by the many roles he filled throughout his life. Here are 8 lesser-known sides of Xu Beihong that inform his body of work.

xu beihong horse

Xu Beihong, “Horse.” Ink on paper, mounted on silk. Sold for $602,500 via Doyle New York (September 2013).

1. Xu Beihong was a worldwide student.

Xu began studying with his father, Xu Dazhang, when he was six years old. His education continued throughout his childhood, and at the age of 19 he began working in Shanghai as a commercial painter where he remained for a few years while obtaining a degree in French language. Through his twenties, Xu studied abroad: first in Tokyo for a brief period, then in Paris, where he was accepted to the Ecole National Superieure des Beaux-Arts. He spent most of the 1920s adapting to the style of figurative oil painting taught in Europe, and traveling to Germany, Belgium, and Italy before returning to China in 1927.

2. Xu was a fervent realist.

During Xu Beihong’s time in Paris, the European art scene was progressing further and further into Modernism and abstraction. Figures like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, and Max Ernst were the darlings of the artistic scene, producing works that pushed the boundaries of figural representation (or logic itself). Xu moved away from this trend, instead focusing on cultivating a reputation for realistic figural representation, a trend that had peaked in the Parisian art scene with the career of Gustave Courbet, who had died in 1877, nearly twenty years before Xu was born.

Xu Beihong, “Ducks,” 1947. Ink and color on paper. Sold for HKD2,120,000 via Sotheby’s (April 2015).

In 1929, after returning to Shanghai, Xu intended to enter into the Chinese Ministry of Education’s “First National Art Exhibition,” but withdrew his entry after discovering that many of the other exhibited works were Modernist. In the end, his insistence on realism and figural representation proved influential, as the next year his entry in Nanjing’s “Central Art Society Painting Exhibition” was deemed “the first voice of the artistic revival.” During this period, Xu’s influence grew as he began to teach at universities, gaining a wide following of students that similarly practiced traditional Chinese composition in addition to oil painting, notably including Wu Zuoren.

3. He was an artist in exile.

In the 1930s, Japan invaded and occupied much of China. Xu fled to Southeast Asia, holding solo exhibitions in India, Malaysia, and Singapore to raise funds for the Chinese war effort. In exile Xu would follow the news of the war intently, concerned about the fate of his country. 1939’s “Put Down Your Whip,” for example, depicts a street performer Xu encountered on the streets of Singapore, who was similarly displaced by the war. Xu was so moved by her performance, he spent the next 10 days straight developing the work. This painting was later auctioned for nearly $10 million in 2007.

4. Xu met with Gandhi.

During his time in Southeast Asia, Xu befriended Rabindranath Tagore, an influential Nobel Laureate. Together, the two journeyed to India and coordinated the Sino-Indian cultural society. It was here that Tagore introduced Xu to Mahatma Gandhi. The two Indian figures were the subject of some of Xu’s best portraiture from the period, both in oil and ink on paper.

Xu Beihong, “Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore,” 1947. Offered for $1,200,000 – $1,800,000 via Gianguan Auctions (September 2017).

5. He was an academy president.

After the war, Xu returned home, where the People’s Republic of China had recently risen to power. He resumed teaching, and was appointed to be the founding president of the Communist Party’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, a post he would hold until his health deteriorated in the 1950s.

6. Xu Beihong was a lover of cats. 

Xu owned cats throughout his lifetime, and they often feature in his early portraiture. He referred to them as “lifelong partners in the new capital.” In the depths of war, he represented China as a lion, inscribing 1934’s “Leaping to New Life” with the following: “As the peril grows, anger fills my chest. I painted this to comfort myself.”

xi beihong cat

Xu Beihong, “Cat,” 1937. Ink and color on paper. Sold for HKD124,675 via Sotheby’s (April 2006).

7. Xu was impassioned by politics. 

To say that politics had a major influence on Xu’s life and work would be an understatement. Throughout the artist’s life, China was in a tumultuous state of affairs, and the future of the country was uncertain. In the midst of the chaos, Xu felt that a new, modern Chinese identity needed to be articulated. To do this, he looked to the past, recasting classical folklore with new meanings for the present moment in a manner similar to the French Neoclassicists during the French Revolution, led by Jacques-Louis David.

“Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Followers,” one of Xu’s most famous oil paintings, depicts an ancient tale. Tian Heng, an aristocrat and rival to the newly crowned Han Emperor, was offered amnesty for his clan should he submit to the new authority of Liu Bang. Tian chose honorable suicide rather than submission to the new regime, which saved the lives of his people. But upon hearing the news of his death, his followers similarly took their own lives rather than bowing to the emperor.

xu beihong

Xu Beihong, “Noble Steed,” 1935. Hand scroll, ink on paper. Sold for $120,000 via Gianguan Auctions (March 2015).

 8. He was a painter of horses.

Xu Beihong’s sketches of horses have become famous for their seemingly effortless evocation of fluidity and power. With an understanding of the artist’s remarkable life, though, they take on new depth. Xu’s education allowed him to study horse anatomy in detail, gaining familiarity with equine muscular and skeletal structures, likely through dissections. His devotion to realism sought to capture the ocular essence of the horse, rather than delving into abstraction. Xu chose to depict proud warhorses, unsaddled and majestic, as opposed to lean or scraggly horses, because the horse came to be a symbol of a new nationalism, striving for a sense of country in a time of calamity.

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