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Between Tradition and Modernity: The Art of Fan Tchunpi

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2013
Michael Taylor, Director

The works of art on display in Between Tradition and Modernity: The Art of Fan Tchunpi this autumn showcase this artist’s consummate ability to successfully bridge Chinese and Western painting traditions. Fan Tchunpi (1898–1986) was one of a number of twentieth-century Chinese artists who sought to revitalize the tradition of Chinese brush-and-ink painting (guohua) as a self-conscious expression of national identity. In 1932, while living and working in Shanghai, she began to experiment with traditional methods of Chinese brush-and-ink painting, which she learned from Gao Jianfu (1879–1951) and his brother Gao Qifeng (1889–1935), the founders of the Lingnan School. As the school’s name suggests, its artistic center was situated “south of the mountain range” (ling nan) around Guangzhou in southern China. Having absorbed Western pictorial devices, such as single-point perspective and the use of atmospheric light, the brothers updated Chinese ink painting through highly naturalistic scenes of modern daily life in China that demonstrated their patriotism and concern for the fate of their country. Fan Tchunpi was deeply influenced by the Lingnan School painters, as seen in the style and subject matter of Blind Beggar with Child, which reflects the poverty and bitter struggle for survival that many people had to endure in China during the 1930s.

Fan Tchunpi returned to the traditions of Chinese ink painting following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which forced her and her family into exile. As the paintings and ceramics in this exhibition attest, she felt compelled to invoke her nation’s artistic traditions in order to protect and reaffirm China’s cultural heritage during a time of turbulent political, social, and cultural change. In 1972, Fan Tchunpi returned to China for the first time since she had fled the country with her three sons after Communist forces seized power. Pine Branches was made during this emotional visit to her homeland. Fan Tchunpi used swift yet assured brushstrokes and transparent washes of black ink to depict the gnarled, twisted form of the branches and delicate pine needles, which were rendered in fine and fluent lines with a dry brush. Although informed by her extensive academic training in the Western realist tradition in art schools in Paris and Bordeaux in the 1910s and 1920s, the spare, diagonal composition and exquisite brushwork reflect her admiration for the work of her contemporaries in China, especially Qi Biashi (1864–1957), who shared her desire to preserve and reinvigorate the distinctive elements and characteristics of Chinese ink painting. Between Tradition and Modernity: The Art of Fan Tchunpi, which I co-organized with art history major Xinyue Guo, Dartmouth Class of 2014, represents a unique opportunity for our visitors to encounter the work of this important Chinese modern artist and learn more about this fascinating era in world history.

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