Celebrating Gu Fei: a true landscape master

Female artist Gu Fei (1907-2008) was one of the rare masters of brushwork. Her landscapes embody the aesthetics of traditional Chinese art.
Ti Gong

Gu Fei's depiction of the Shixin Peak of the Yellow Mountain

For laymen interested in Chinese landscape painting who yet don’t know how to appreciate the black-and-white brushstrokes, it is wise to keep in mind two lines by Su Shi, one of the major Song Dynasty (960-1279) poets: “His brush moves with the speed of wind and rain, and his presence can be felt before the brush-pen arrives.”

Female artist Gu Fei (1907-2008) was one of the rare masters of brushwork in contemporary China, whose reclusive landscapes embodied such aesthetic values.

Gu, whose prime creative years were lost during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), refused to compromise and insisted on modesty. Spending all her life on poetry, painting and teaching, she never caved in to established tastes and fashionable whims.

To celebrate her 110th birth anniversary, 200 of her artworks have been carefully selected for an exhibition by the Shanghai Culture and History Institute to showcase her extraordinary achievements in the development of Chinese landscape painting.

“She dashed clouds and mist with a finessed brush, devising hills and dales that are unseen in this world …” said art critic Lu Zhenbai (1907-84) of Gu’s paintings on Yellow Mountain.

Born in Nanhui (today’s Pudong New Area) into a traditional scholar’s family in Shanghai, Gu once adopted the pen name Mo Fei. In her younger years, she was closely tutored by Huang Binhong (1865-1955), a master of traditional Chinese painting. She was well versed in the integrity of his art and became an established master in her own right.

Under the influence of her brothers who picked up revolutionary ideas after the May 4th Movement which encouraged women’s liberation, Gu founded the China Women’s Association of Calligraphy and Painting in 1937 with several other female painters such as Feng Wenfeng, Gu Qingyao and Chen Xiaocui.

At its peak, the association had almost 200 members. Between 1937 and 1948, more than 10 public exhibitions were held and many women artists grew to be independent or professional painters under its auspices.

To speak of painting in terms of “presence and liveliness” is a tradition that may be traced back to Xie He of the Six Dynasties period (AD 220-589), who wrote the “Six Principles of Chinese Painting.” 

In the preface to his book “The Record of the Classification of Old Painters,” Xie said that “what we mean by presence and liveliness is the spirited quality and a measure of spontaneity.”

In Gu’s words, “presence and liveliness” referred to a personal command of the life force of nature. To reach that state, “one must write his paintings instead of tracing it, and bring together what he experiences in poetic and scholarly readings.”

Taking a look at Gu’s work, one can’t help but feel the immensity of space and time.

There are rugged boulders that inspire imaginings of the fierce and mighty. There are streams running from afar, delivering us from worldly worries.

As Confucius said, “The wise find pleasure in water; the virtuous find please in hills; the wise are joyful; and the virtuous are long-lived.” 

Exhibition details

Date: November 4-12, 9:30am-4:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Culture and History Institute

Address: 41 Sinan Rd

Ti Gong

A file photo of the members of the China Women's Association of Calligraphy and Painting in 1937. Gu Fei is on the fourth from left.

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