Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Artworks and Masters – Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿 / Hsü Pei-hung): Reviving Old Traditions

A Short Biography of Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿 / Hsü Pei-hung)

Xu Beihong (1895 – 1953) belonged to the strongest painters in modern Chinese ink and wash painting. He was sent to France in 1919 by the Ministry of Education to study Art at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After graduation in 1923, he stayed in Europe and traveled around, examining the art of Berlin, Vienna and Zurich. He returned to Beijing in 1928 and became professor at numerous art institutions in Nanjing and Beijing. Until 1949, years were filled with exhibitions in China and in foreign countries. In 1953, he died of tuberculosis of only 57.

Xu Beihong strongly felt that Chinese painting needed to be modernized by the amalgamation with western techniques. He did not limit himself only to ink and wash painting, but excelled in other techniques, such as oil painting. Xu created many of his well-known works in the 1930s, a period most creative for the painter. In his opinion, Chinese painting should preserve traditional methods, but take the best out of Western painting to become modern. Xu Beihong advocated to continue painting with traditional tools (such as ink), but to adopt Western techniques like perspective and depiction of light and shadow, a concept not originally known in Asian painting.

Xu Beihong was the first Chinese painter to use foreign painting styles in his works.

The Paintings of Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿 / Hsü Pei-hung)

If there is one painting subject that no one could paint in a better way than Xu Beihong, it’s the horses. Xu Beihong is mostly known for his elegant horse pictures that have been reproduced countless times.

Xu always encouraged his students to study their subjects carefully. His horse pictures show that he himself watched the animals closely to be able to render their movements with strong, wet brushstrokes. The flowing brushwork proves that he was absolute familiar with his object and willing to catch the essence of a freely running horse. Similar to Liang Kai, he needs only a few strokes to convey what he wants to show, but adds a bit more details to his pictures. On top of that, the different shades of ink are not that strongly defined – although he works with layers and combines brighter and darker tonalities, the different shades blur due to the high moisture of ink. On the one hand, he follows the traditional concept of Chinese painting which is the not the absolute reproduction of reality, but catching the “essence” of a subject. When taking a look at Xu Beihong’s horse pictures, one can virtually feel the power and vitality of this animal. On the other hand, Xu uses western methods for his pictures, although this is more on a technical level. The use of perspective and the indication of volume of the horse’s body are clearly taken from Western painting. Xu Beihong thus managed to create a threefold harmonic combination: He uses the indigenous Chinese technique of painting with a brush and ink. However, the methods he employs are Western, such as the use of perspective, the depiction of a ground the horse is running on, and the creation of depth. The simplified way in which the horse is depicted yet again goes along with the traditional concepts of ink and wash painting aesthetics.