Shanghai-born Chinese-American artist Kong Baiji presents Beijing art enthusiasts with a precious opportunity to savor his elaborate and distinctive works as he brings his 100-piece solo exhibition to Beijing's National Art Museum of China from April 18 to April 29.
Kong Baiji's 100-piece solo exhibition runs from April 18 to April 29 at the National Art Museum of China, Beijing. [courtesy of kongbaiji.com]
Dubbed as the trail blazer of oil painting on paper, the octogenarian artist, who emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1986 and whose painting career has spanned six decades, consummately combines western painting techniques and oriental elements to create works which have drawn admiration from both Chinese and foreign art lovers.
Chen Xiejun, curator of the Shanghai Museum, claimed that Kong's original creation, oil painting on paper, with its delicate craftsmanship, has the power to express forceful visual effects. It is certainly hard to copy works of such powerful originality.
Born in 1932, Kong was formally apprenticed to his tutor in Shanghai at the age of 12, and has been reflecting the world around him through his artistic mirror ever since. Publishing his first engraving print in 1952, Mr. Kong became a teacher at the Fine Arts Department of the Shanghai Theatrical Institute four years later. After he accidentally discovered the works of French Impressionists such as Manet, Monnet and Cezanne in an old magazine, he was so inspired that he continued to explore his own style under their influence throughout the remainder of the decade.
Kong's lifelike portraits of peasants in the 1960s drew severe condemnation from rebels during the Cultural Revolution. The criticisms centered on the fact that the figures in Kong's works appeared to be pathetic and impoverished and therefore not in line with the buoyant spirits deemed crucial to the portrayal of so-called socialist peasants. Despite the fact that he was subsequently forbidden to paint or draw, Kong continued to secretly produce works under lamplight while everyone else was sleeping.
After resuming his work at the Shanghai Theatrical Institute in 1972, Kong became engrossed in sketching in nature and spent the next 12 Spring Festivals painting from life. His imitations of the frescoes in the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes since 1976 could be considered the turning point in his painting career. The innovative Dunhuang Impression oils on rice paper earned him worldwide renown and turned him into a cross-cultural figure.
Seeking inspiration from religious figures at the historical site, Kong's fascination with the magnificent Dunhuang murals led to an extraordinary period of productivity where he worked tirelessly, eschewing food and rest, to complete 150 copies in 20 days during his first visit.
It was at this time that Kong pioneered his technique of painting with oils on rice paper instead of canvas. According to Kong, he used rice paper because it was simply lighter, and therefore easier to carry during his arduous journey. However, the works he produced on the material have a transparency which evokes the feeling of traditional Chinese paintings.
In 1980, an exhibition of Kong's Dunhuang mural copies caused a sensation in Shanghai, with visitor numbers in excess of 100,000. In 1985, the Japanese government invited him to pay an official visit and held an exhibition tour for him covering 15 cities, including Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. He emigrated to the U.S. the following year.
This month's 100-piece retrospective exhibition in Beijing mainly features works that he created after he left China for the U.S. Works include his representative Dunhuang Impression series, oil paintings depicting the natural scenery of his hometown in Connecticut, U.S. and other oil works on paper that display the poetical landscapes of China and European countries.
Kong's special affection for the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes has drawn him back there two more times to copy murals, with the latest of his trips coming in 2005. The caves' extraordinary 1800-year history and the stunning art they house provide Kong with a rich source of inspiration. The graceful and composed Bodhisattva on murals finished in the Northern Wei and Sui Dynasties are reproduced as serene and charming figures in Kong's works. Chen Xiejun points out that the vivid images of the seated Bodhisattva, plump gigako, pious disciple and elegant goddess in the moon which appear in Kong's works gloriously illustrate Dunhuang's artistic culture.
The oil paintings, featuring the multicolored landscapes of south China's peaceful riverside towns, and the bustling metropolises or desolate traces of ancient civilizations in European countries, all portray the great depth and purity of nature.
Fan Di'an, curator of the National Art Museum of China, commented that Kong's unique style is a successful innovation of painting materials and techniques. Shui Tianzhong, a famous art critic and researcher in Chinese painting circles, wrote in the museum's visitor's book that "Kong Baiji's works light up the world of Chinese painting."
According to Kong, his latest pieces are very much real-world reflections.
"Reviewing my recent works, I hold that they basically tally with the real world," he said. "Every cloud, tree, river or house demonstrates warmth and intimacy spontaneously."
Despite his advancing years, Kong has lost none of his passion, and still ventures out at daybreak to sketch under nature's influence. "I do it purely for the sake of art," he said. "I am grateful to be able to record a graphic account of this fantastic world every day."