Cleveland Museum of Art/ Yale University Press, 242 pp., $50.00 (paper)
How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does moral commitment trump personal survival?
Such questions do not always have self-evident answers, and especially not in the case of China, where revolutions of many different kinds swept their turbulent way throughout the country for over a century. During that long period, bloodless coups and the most violent upheavals alternated and overlapped, sometimes combining with local forces to overthrow incumbent regimes, at others invoking the claims of various foreign powers for special treatment and territorial control. The Chinese were confronted by a sea change of options, ranging from imperial rule to republican experiments in governance, from progressive to parafascist militarism, from Japanese occupation to elitist single-party control from the right and the left, or the self-induced chaos of domestic mass movements.
The Chinese artist Fu Baoshi, who lived from 1904 to 1965 and is the subject of the elegantly structured and biographically rich exhibition and catalog now at the Metropolitan Museum, provides us with a range of entry points into the China of his time, many of which have been only partially explored. Yet the title of the show, “Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution,” though certainly broad, still does not quite catch the full richness and ambiguity of the materials presented here. Cumulatively, these details of Fu’s hopes and experiences provide us with nothing less than a variety of new perspectives through which to explore an unusual life in a time of opportunity and challenge.
Fu Baoshi was born in the waning years of the Qing dynasty, to a farming family in the prosperous city of Nanchang. The city was the capital of Jiangxi province in central China, and in the later nineteenth century had been the base of operations for a number of innovative national administrators, some of whom had been especially involved in exploring the cultural currents from the West. Because of his father’s repeated bouts of illness and the family’s poverty, Fu received no formal schooling until 1917, when he was thirteen, but this experience of hardship seems to have had certain advantages for the family. Fu’s father moved to the city and worked at various nonfarming jobs, one of which was as an umbrella mender, and Fu himself as a child brought some money into the family by working as an apprentice in a ceramics shop. From this experience he grew fascinated with the designs that were used as the decoration on fine porcelain, and that in turn stimulated an interest in drawing and carving, so that by the age of seven or eight he had learned to draw and also to write some of the classical characters on his …