I was not perfectly well towards the end of our trip to Guangzhou. The Family was happy to prune the must-see list. We thought that the provincial art museum looked interesting, and was worth a visit. When we took an escalator up from the nearest Metro station, we didn’t realize that it was a long walk. Eventually, with a little help from friends, we reached a building which looked like a museum (see the featured photo) and had a large sign across the top in which I could make out the characters for art and museum.
The foyer was crowded. A special exhibit of paintings by members of the Cantonese diaspora in the US was being inaugurated. Since we could not understand the speeches, we went on to the galleries. The permanent collection included a very large number of paintings (and calligraphy, of course) from across the centuries. I’m not well versed in the history of Chinese art, and being ignorant of the writing, cannot use this as a guide. So I admired the paintings as objects in themselves. I like a certain kind of monumental painting that is natural in older scrolls; a huge vista is painted in quick strokes and broad washes. Then if you look closely, you see a few tiny human figures hard at the mundane work of their daily lives. These are hard to photographs, because of the difference in the scales of the two things you would like to capture. It is much easier to take photos of the other kind of thing I love about Chinese classical painting: close observation of nature. I liked this picture of a heron waiting above a waterfall for fish, and the horses. Chinese painters saw horses very differently from the west; their vision if of powerfully muscular animals. That is the emphasis you see in the photo above. Both photos were taken by The Family.
One discovery for us was of the near contemporary cartoonist called Liao Bingxiong. He was born in 1915 and died in 2006, his life straddling the part of the history of China which would both give him ample material for his art, and a hard life because of it. The exhibition on his work covered a whole floor. The name was new to me, and I found later that some assess him as the greatest cartoonist of modern China. He is certainly important enough that I found a course in the Humanities department of the University of Oslo on his work.
The extensive collection of his work was not hard to appreciate. He seems to have criticized the Kuomintang government in the 1930s, then the Japanese in the 1940s, and Mao Zedong afterwards. He was banned from publishing cartoons for a decade, and was reinstated only after Mao’s death. I took the photo you see above. Similar drawings appear a couple of times in other periods of his work. It seems that he relentlessly questioned privilege and took the side of the underdog throughout his life. The walk was tiring but we found a new major artist at the end of it. Not a bad day’s work.