By the 1930s, great changes had taken place in the concept and practice of Chinese art. Hundreds of Chinese students studied art in the early decades of the 20th century, and France was a major destination for Chinese art students. Fortunately, Chinese artists were not ready to abandon the traditions of Chinese painting, but to improve it by introducing western techniques.
Of course, the process of imitating and learning western painting was not smooth. Even though the majority of people all agreed to combine Chinese art with western art, there were totally different views here. Due to the complexity and diversity of western styles, Chinese artists were confused about which genres to introduce.
Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu all once studied in France. The two masters later became important representatives of Chinese artists who combined western oil painting techniques with the freehand brushwork of Chinese painting, and influenced the creation of Chinese painting in an era. There artistic innovations were undoubtedly a contribution to the dialogue between China and the west. However, the two masters, with their support of realism and modernism respectively, developed very different understandings of the introduction of western art and thus dominated a fierce art debate, showing the pluralistic development pattern of the fine arts.
Liu Haisu’s paintings were a combination of post-impressionist, brutalism and Chinese freehand style. The essence of art in his eyes was the confession of life. Only the unique form that cannot be copied and imitated, the free expression that was not bound and fetter, can be called the pure vindicate of life.
The stance of reformist artists such as Liu put him in direct confrontation with more revolutionary artists such as Xu, who advocated western realism as an alternative to the “idle” literati aesthetic. The latter was a firm advocate of realism and guided the spread of realist painting in China. In a novel way, he introduced the realistic technique into Chinese figure painting, the purpose of which was to reproduce the familiar content of Chinese painting like people, mountains, rivers, animals, flowers and birds.
Next, I will specifically analyze a work by Liu Haisu and Xu Beihong respectively to show their different understanding of western art and Chinese art, and try to present their artistic views and characteristics of their works.
At that time, Chinese ink painting reached a state of lack of motivation and vitality. Xu Beihong hoped to show the way for Chinese painting creation by combining Chinese and western styles. As a master of Chinese ink and oil, Xu Beihong’s works were full of traditional Chinese style. To create a new national art form, he combined Chinese brush and ink techniques with western methods of perspective and composition, combining bold strokes with precise outlines. We can see that the shapes of the horses in the picture were accurate and vivid, reflecting the western painting techniques in the shape, and the Chinese traditional painting techniques in the brushwork.
The galloping horse in this painting galloped from a distance, full of energy and inspiring power. This was the moral that Xu Beihong tried to convey through the picture. At that time, China was in the midst of the Anti-Japanese War, and Xu tended to create inspiring works to contribute to the war.
The East Wind Blows Open Blossoming Red oil painting work was the representative of Liu Haisu’s oil painting artistic creation flourishing period. This work was the first oil painting created by Liu Haisu when he recovered from his serious illness, which showed a strong vitality and was very consistent with Liu Haisu's personal feelings at that time. The color of the painting was warm and wild, which reminded people of the paintings of Liu Haisu’s idol Van Gogh.
It had the impression painting characteristic, also presented the Chinese oil painting style. According to Liu Haisu, the purpose of impression painting was to express, rather than to reproduce, which coincided with the concept that Chinese traditional literati painting paid attention to freehand brushwork. The picture was not limited by the color of natural light, but focused on the subjective color image.
This work not only had the nature of still life writing, but also had the characteristics of Chinese flower-and-bird painting composition, emphasizing the bone method with brush and density.