When we think about contemporary art from China, those of us who know anything about it will be able to name several artists: Ai WeiWei, Xu Bing, Qiu Zhijie etc. However, most would be hard pressed to be able to list any women. Throughout history, in both the east and the west, the role of the artist has been an almost solely male occupation. The past 50 or so years has seen the west become increasingly more acceptable of female practitioners but this recognition of female talent has not always been a worldwide triumph. Now however, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is hosting a retrospective show of the work of the late Chinese artist, Fang Zhaoling.
Fang’s Oxford show does not just coincide with the museum’s large collection of contemporary Chinese art. The artist studied at the famed university and her mother stressed the importance of female education. Most of the images have been donated to the Ashmolean by the artist’s family, with some work being on show for the first time. The work on display has both a strong sense of influence from China and Britain, which seems more than fitting for an exhibition of art from a Chinese woman in Oxford. One moment we are awe-stricken by stunning Chinese landscapes and the next we are reminded of our own marvels, which include many depictions of Stone Henge.
The show moves chronologically, following Fang’s life and showing how her work developed. At the beginning we see hanging scrolls of calligraphy and still lives comprising of Asian vegetation. These earlier works show the artist copying from her teachers who included celebrated artists Zhao Shao’ang and Zhang Daqian. One of the artist’s best compliments from the beginning of her career – although a backhanded one – was that her calligraphy did not look like it was done by the hand of a woman. Also on show are images of flowers, a subject that typically would have been more acceptable to have been painted by a woman, with the flower itself symbolising a female.
However, Fang did not restrict herself to societal ideals and branched out into a predominantly male domain by depicting more narrative scenes and tackling controversial issues such as Vietnamese refugees arriving in Hong Kong. In fact, many of the artist’s landscapes seem to illustrate travel, perhaps as a result of her own constant voyages between Hong Kong and Britain.
My favourite aspect of Fang’s work is her disproportionate figures that seem to hold their own against her staggering landscapes. The artist also branches out from the Chinese tradition of painting with brush and ink by experimenting with oil paint, however, I must admit, the brush and ink work is my favourite.
This show is a wonderful celebration of Fang’s life and a victory in the display of modern Chinese art by a female artist. This is well worth a look before it closes!
Fang Zhaoling: A Centenary Exhibition is on display at Ashmolean Museum until 22 February