5 minute read

By Professor Shelagh Vainker
Curator of Chinese Art

Fu Baoshi (1904–65) was one of the leading ink painters of 20th-century China. At the outbreak of China’s war with Japan (1937–45) he was a professor of painting at the National Central University in Nanjing, the then capital of China. The University, along with other national institutions, moved west to Sichuan province during the war and re-established itself at Chongqing.

Shortly after arrival, their buildings in Chongqing suffered bombing and fires: half the staff were assigned new quarters in the city, the other half (including the Fu family) were housed in the surrounding countryside. He wrote:

I am living beside the old road to Chongqing at Jingangpo in a tiny courtyard that was originally a gatehouse, divided into two by a thin bamboo screen: each room is no more than a few square metres and it’s less than two metres high. The only light comes from the few weak rays that penetrate the broken tiles on the roof – it’s not enough to write a letter, let alone produce a painting!

The only way to paint is to wait until a meal is over and then take the solitary square wooden table over to the doorway and use the light coming through the door, and when I’ve finished painting, to take it back across to its original position for a mealtime or whatever the next activity. And so every day I have to tidy up the mess twice: clearing up the waste paper, washing the brushes and inkstone, sweeping the floor and wiping the table – I have to do all of them one by one.

And so for the last six months I have given my wife and three children no alternative, when I’m painting I have to ask them to go outside and while away five or six, or eight or nine hours in the bamboo forest.

Though this is the reality of my circumstances for painting, when I stand by the mountain at Jingangpo, despite my ramshackle thatched dwelling I wish for nothing else: the rushing springs, the encircling bamboo and the mountain pines…. It all calls to mind a poem by Shi Tao:  

"In recent years I secured a dwelling by a mountain,
I enjoy the sound of rushing water, the great bamboos.
Seated, I suddenly hear the wind and rain arriving,
Hurriedly calling the children to gather up book"

– Shi Tao (c. 1640–c. 1705)

This passage comes from the preface Fu wrote to an exhibition of his paintings held in Chongqing in October 1942. Despite the challenges of painting in these conditions, and moreover having to travel to Chongqing for teaching stints, he states that 60-70% of the works exhibited had been painted since his move there, and 30-40% were works he had produced earlier, in Nanjing. Nonetheless it was only the third exhibition he had held over the previous ten years as his time had been mostly taken up with writing and teaching.

In fact, the years in Chongqing were certainly some of his most prolific, and include the artwork shown here (Landscape with Mountains and Trees) which is in the Ashmolean's collection. The inscription states it was painted in 1943 in Sichuan, and while the date puts it too late to have been part of the exhibition for which Fu wrote this preface, it was undoubtedly produced in the circumstances he so vividly describes.