Female empowerment and equality in modern societies has been a much debated topic dating back over a century. While the diverse achievements of female talents across different fields have gained better light in recent years, female artists remain an under-represented and under-appreciated segment in many societies and even more so across Chinese communities.
Yet the emergence of female artists in 20th century China was a testament to both the country’s social progress and the various redefinitions of modernity that were adopted in a historical context complicated by wars and disasters. Female agency in society was among the issues argued and promoted in the mass media of the time and retains lasting ideological power today. In scholastic studies and exhibitions, however, attention has been focused on modern Chinese male artists. Exhibitions featuring the creative attainments and influences of their female counterparts from the period are few and far between, and rarely in monographic presentations.
Asia Society Hong Kong Center’s 20th Century Chinese Female Artists Exhibition Series (“the Series”), the first of its kind in Hong Kong, aims to reclaim the story of female artists. By providing local Hong Kong audiences with important examples of their artistic accomplishments, we hope to honor them with the public recognition they deserve for their contribution to the making of modern China.
From a wider community context, the Series fits into the discourse on female empowerment and equality in today’s Hong Kong, where research indicates that women continue to face challenges in male-dominated industries as well as gender stereotypes in the media and the workplace. Through education programs for children, students, families, and the general public, we will highlight achievements of women in various industries while connecting to the lives and careers of the unique female artists presented in the Series.
The first exhibition in the Series focuses on the life and works of Fang Zhaoling, and is made possible by The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. It also includes the “Jockey Club Art Education and Female Empowerment Series” which are educational talks and activities targeting participation from the local community.
Painting Her Way: The Ink Art of Fang Zhaoling is presented exclusively by The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. The exhibition features a selection of paintings and calligraphy by the distinguished female artist Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006).
Fang was one of the most innovative Chinese painters to emerge in the last decades of the 20th century. Her work is original, distinctive and powerful. She was among the first female generation in China to benefit from greater educational opportunities, and female artists like her who fully realized their careers were relatively few.
Beyond biography and artistic development, the exhibition also considers ink painting and how Fang, as a diasporic artist, played a particularly significant role in its revival after chaotic reforms in the mid-century. It addresses the period of development between traditional ink art of the past and its new direction, showcasing Fang as a bridge between two generations.
Fang Zhaoling was remarkable for the originality and quality of her art and for her success in making Chinese painting speak to the modern world. Equally important was the unique trajectory of her artistic development as a modern woman artist and her achievements in the context of the 20th century art world.
A modern Western-style education and inherited master-disciple patterns of training in Chinese painting, both of which were important in Fang’s early life, seemed inherently contradictory. The key question of how their intersection could be coherently and productively configured in the artistic life of a contemporary artist has been little examined in 20th century art history.
Fang’s compelling art and life serve as an elegant case from which to ponder such larger questions as women’s likely contribution to a modern China: What role might women play in society after an education in the modern system? How might this early generation of modern women serve as role models for subsequent generations?
What, moreover, could Chinese painting contribute in the 20th century? In 1922, Professor Chen Shizeng at the Beijing Women’s Higher Normal School published an important thesis, “Wenrenhua zhi jiazhi” (The Value of Literati Painting), arguing for the significance of Chinese “wenrenhua” (literati painting) in the contemporary world. Chen contrasted the inherently progressive self-expressive nature of literati painting to the realist imperative in European modernism. He also highlighted the importance of knowledge, education, and ethics as fundamentals to the art form.
His work revived interest in the art form and inspired subsequent generations to improvise Chinese painting styles that might speak to the world and to their own times. His theory called for qualities of virtue, altruism, wisdom, perseverance, independence, and firm principles from those who might claim to paint at the highest level, and assumed Chinese painting as a highly spiritual and socially constructive activity.
The challenge of how Chinese society and culture might fit into the international world led to constant proposals for ways to stake out a modern Chinese identity. Fang’s open-minded and forward-looking artistic explorations, and her eventual breakthrough into an artistic language of her own, seem to have flowed from the seminal streams of artistic and humanistic experimentation that burst forth in the early 20th century. This freshness of outlook permitted her to find her own vision in every part of the world she visited, from Stonehenge to Huangshan, to respond to the works of other artists, from Chen Fushan (Luis Chan) or Zhang Daqian to Shaanxi’s peasant painters, with compelling images from her own mind, generally filling her work with celebrations of the vividness of life.
This exhibition is guest curated by leading scholars in modern Chinese art of the 20th century, Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, with Joyce Hei-ting Wong as Assistant Curator.
Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006) was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China. She was one of the most innovative Chinese painters to emerge in the last decades of the 20th century. In her artistic passage from childhood to adult, she studied with three of China’s leading painters, Qian Songyan, Zhao Shaoang, and Zhang Daqian, achieving technical mastery of the medium as practiced in three very different ways. Her master-disciple patterns of training in Chinese painting intersected with the modern Western style education she received at The University of Manchester, The University of Hong Kong, and Oxford University.
During her lifetime she exhibited widely in Japan, Europe, and the United States as well as elsewhere in Asia, but it is only with the distance of time that the path-breaking nature of her art and career have become most evident. In 1951 Fang exhibited with her tutor, Zhao Shaoang at the first Chinese art show in Japan since the war. She then exhibited in various group and solo exhibitions including the Musée d’Orsay in 1953, Oxford University in 1957, the Royal Academy Summer Show in 1967, Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1978, Shanghai Art Museum in 1983.
She was at the same time remarkable in her perseverance, her unwavering lifelong pursuit of her art, and her ultimate artistic success. In this, she was a model example of the “new woman” so much debated by theorists of the early 20th century, a woman who through education and travel achieved self-realization that enabled her to contribute to world culture at the highest level.
Julia F. Andrews is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History of Art at The Ohio State University and a recent recipient of Fulbright Fellowship. Her 1994 publication, Painters and Politics in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1979, won the Joseph Levenson Prize of the Association for Asian Studies as the best book of the year on modern China. She co-curated one of the first American exhibitions of post-‘89 Chinese art, Fragmented Memory: The Chinese Avant-Garde in Exile, at OSU's Wexner Center for the Arts in 1993, and the Guggenheim Museum's ground-breaking 1998 exhibition, A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth Century China, shown in New York and Bilbao. Her recent projects include Blooming in the Shadows: Unofficial Chinese Art, 1974-1985 (China Institute, 2011, New York), Light Before Dawn (Asia Society, Hong Kong Center, 2013), and Art of Modern China (with Kuiyi Shen, University of California Press, 2012), which was awarded the 2013 Humanities Book Prize of the International Convention of Asia Scholars. She was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.
Kuiyi Shen is Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at University of California, San Diego. His publications include Between the Thunder and the Rain (San Francisco, 2000); The Elegant Gathering (San Francesco, 2006); Chinese Posters (Munich, 2009); Blooming in the Shadows (New York, 2011); and Arts of Modern China (Berkeley, 2012). Prof. Shen has also worked as a curator including A Century in Crisis, the modern portion of China, 5000 Years (Guggenheim Museum SoHo and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1998), Reboot-The Third Chengdu Biennale (Chengdu Modern Art Museum, 2007), and Boundless-Ongoing Chinese Ink Art (Sichuan Fine Art Institute, 2017). He is a recipient of research funds and fellowships of the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Social Science Research Council, Japan Society for Promotion of Science, Stanford University, and Leiden University.
Special thanks to the lenders for the loan of the selected Fang Zhaoling works of arts on display in this exhibition