Xu Beihong: The Artist behind the Horse and History
This post is for art and horse lovers. I fall into both categories. This post is a collaboration between me and James, one of my best friends with whom I share love of literature and art for more than 17 years. We had spent hundreds of hours discussing literature since my college years. Even though we usually ended up with verbal fights resulted from our disagreements on interpretations, we both very much cherished those years when we had the time and luxury to enjoy literature for the pure love of understanding humanities. At exactly 90 years old this year, James is still active with many activities in life, including auditing classes in his hometown university in San Francisco, California and continues to read vastly and expand on his erudition in many subjects, including engineer (which is his primary profession), literature and linguistics. James is my role model for many aspects of life.
In the section below between the dotted lines is a short writing from James about one of the artists he included in his art collection. Since James has a fairly large collection of art which I will want to slowly share on this blog, this post will only focus on the artist Xu Beihong's famous paintings of horses.
Xu Beihong (1895-1953) is a Chinese master painter in the last century who fuses the best of both Western and Chinese artistic achievements in creating his own Chinese style of painting. The subjects of his works are broad, including landscapes, people, birds and animals, flowers and trees. He advocates realism in painting, not just making the object similar in form or appearance of the thing in nature, but more importantly in revealing the essence and spirit of the object.
He is well known for his painting of horses, especially those galloping horses which express the artist’s own feelings and emotions during the period of Republic of China (1911-1949) and after the birth of New China in 1949.
Shown below a single standing horse in a frontal pose, dated 1938, which is a rare piece among all his other mobile horse paintings.
Someone has said that Xu’s horse represents people as well, and so in this case he may be giving us a portrait of a Confucius scholar. He stands upright with his feet on solid ground. His straight legs lead to a strong neck holding high with great force of character. His face is expressing lofty spirit, proud, alert and deep thinking all in one. His flopping mane and tail indicate that he is ready for action, to serve.
James knows a lot more about Xu Beihong and his works than just these words. He shared his admiration of Xu and his works to me many years ago with four sets of publications of Xu's paintings (Painting by Xu Beihong. Beijing Publishing House, June 1983). Images of Xu's horses below are taken with my camera phone from Volume II of this series entitled Traditional Chinese Paintings: Birds and Beasts (compiled by the Xu Beihong Museum and the Beijing Publishing House). According to the editor of this volume, images collected in this series are "reproductions [taken] from the more than 1200 paintings now kept in the Xu Beihong Museum."
Although Xu had painted broad subjects throughout his art career, the galloping horses have become representative of his works. Here are a few of his iconic galloping horse paintings.
Xu is known to be the only artist up until his time to paint wild horses. Before him, paintings of horses are usually depicted with saddles or stables. Being domesticated, they are more fat and sleek. Throughout traditional Chinese painting history, horses are mostly depicted with flesh and not many with skeleton.
In contrast, Xu Beihong's horses that are galloping stallions and battle steeds are lean and rugged. Xu mastered his horses with not only flesh, bone structures, but also the inner spirits. We could see in most of Xu's horse paintings the art theories of "expressions of personal feelings" and emotional basis". My favorite one is this one below.
The posture of the horse is thought provoking. It is standing upright holding up oneself, but its back turned the other side as if to conceal its sorrow while weeping. The posture of the horse being slightly leaned on one side also suggests a sense of helplessness, loneliness and detachment. The Chinese calligraphy on the upper left side of the painting reads, "wailing and thinking of war battles". This is the artist himself weeping amid war time.Some of Xu's horses are so rough in appearance that some critics consider them lacking of beauty. Yet, this is precisely the intent of the artist to depict these horses in certain natural and social environment. In this one below, Xu clearly insinuates his lament of the war situation where China was being invaded by Japan since 1931. And one could interpret the horse that has become "ill" in a narrow path on a dangerous cliff to be symbolic of a weak and corrupt China at the time.
Horse had been a painting subject for Xu since the very early time of his painting career. Here are a few of his earlier horses.
It appears to be that his galloping-horse paintings did not become iconic until the late 1930s while he continues to paint various postures, positions, and movements of horses. Below are a few in different compositions.
There is a certain sense of vulnerability expressed through the posture of some of Xu's horses. We get to understand his sentiments a little more from some of Xu's lament of the time, war, and social environment written in brief phrases included in his paintings. For examples, he has written: “Where in this wide world is there lush grass to eat?”; “Nowhere is there a resting place and it is useless to grieve”; “Recalling past battle-fields while the autumn winds blow”.
Here are a few with multiple horses in a painting.
In my reading, I find Xu's painting of single horse more powerful. Whether the horse is standing still, galloping, looking backward or downward, the posture and expression of Xu's horses reflect his own engagement with the social world of the time. Like this one below, one could almost see the inner spirit of the horse, standing still, as if in observance of something. This observance is expressed through the body language of the animal a form of an active engagement, rather than a gaze by a passive onlooker. This spirit is quite parallel to the artist's social consciousness. Throughout his life, Xu was never a wealthy artist despite his prestigious fame. But he never sold his own paintings until the time when he auctioned off his paintings in Southeast Asia to raise funds for helping out war refugees.
As James' reading of that rare painting of the horse in frontal pose above, I also see how Xu's horses achieve a human quality in their expressions, such as this one below. In an almost repose gesture, this horse expresses a certain dignity and embraces a certain noble character. One could interpret it as the artist's wish for his people and the nation of China to be able to stand up straight and tall and fight against injustice of war and invasion.
As critics have stated, Xu's galloping horse is full of force and energy. In this one below, completed in 1951, this galloping horse is the artist rejoicing for the end of wars and the founding of a New China.
My favorite of all Xu Beihong's galloping horse paintings is this one below; it is perhaps the most famous and representative of Xu's horse painting as well. The horse in the painting expresses not only energy, full force, spirits, but most importantly, a sense of hope and faith in life as it marches onward to the front.
Neither James nor I have any training in art history and art criticism. Our readings may be brief and casual and would love to hear your thoughts on these horse paintings. The joy achieved here is to share to those who may love this form of art as much as we do. We hope you find it enjoyable viewing these paintings by the master artist, Xu Beihong.
Blog post written by James W & Hong