Rare solo exhibition for an artist who shunned the limelight

At 95, Zhang Gongque still paints every day. "I just paint for myself, because that's my art," he says, "which constantly keeps my mind running and my body strong."
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Zhang Gongque pictured at his studio in the 1960s

In 1949, when Zhang Gongque was the victim of a theft in Hong Kong, he didn’t realize how thoroughly that would change his life.

Hong Kong was an interchange on his way from Shanghai to Paris where he was going to further his studies in art. However, penniless then, Zhang had to return to Shanghai where he was about to witness the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Now at the age of 95, Zhang still has no idea how life would have been if he had made it to the French capital. 

An exhibition featuring nearly 100 of his canvases will be running at China Art Museum from May 6 to 22. It is Zhang’s second solo exhibition; the first one was held at the former Shanghai Art Museum in 2012.

Included are his earliest abstract works from the 1940s, portraits from the 1960s and most recent landscape paintings.

As a painter, Zhang has never sought the limelight nor pursued money and fame. He rarely sells his work, preferring to keep them at home.

The Shanghai native was tutored by Wu Dayu (1903-88) and Lin Fengmian (1900-91) at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, in the 1940s. The academy, known for teaching Western art concepts, nurtured Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013) and Chu Teh-Chun (1920-2014), all heavyweight names in the history of Chinese contemporary art.

Unlike many of his peers, Zhang is low-profile and doesn’t hobnob with other artists, critics or gallery owners. Though he could have established international reputation as he is the only living artist from the 1940s from the Hangzhou academy, he stayed low-key and taught art at a local middle school from 1952 till retirement in 1985.

In the early 1940s, Zhang began to pursue an abstract style and created a painting entitled “White Wrapped by Dark.” During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), he had to throw away many of his works.

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Zhang Gongque cut up his "White Wrapped by Dark" in the 1940s but reassembled the pieces in 1990 for an exhibition in the United States.

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"The Boy and the Glass," a collaboration between Zhang Gongque and Wu Dayu in the 1950s

“It was difficult for someone who still insisted on the ‘bourgeois’ aesthetic taste from 1950 to 1979,” says Zhang Qing, vice director of the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. “This would be a hard decision – to yield to the outside force or back the freedom of art.”

Zhang Gongque used a scissor to cut “White Wrapped by Dark” into pieces and kept them. In 1990 when he was invited to take part in a joint exhibition in the United States, he retrieved them and put them together to create a new work. It was also the same year in which he was first exposed to the art that he has dreamed of when he was young.

But the artist never complained about life or fate.

“I enjoy a private rendezvous with art,” he says. “I enjoy the sunlight while painting in my garden. Art is something to be savored, and I prefer to isolate myself from the outside world.”

Zhang stores his paintings at home, like treasure.

“Some artists have perhaps been sealed by history, like Zhang Gongque. However, gold glitters. This was not merely about art itself, it was about the piety and confidence of an individual toward art,” says Zhang Qing. “Or to be exact, this is his attitude toward art and life.”

In the artist’s latest works, free-hand writing replaces shaping and overlapping, which leads to a more spiritual and ideal level of art. His subjects range from landscapes to animals and flowers, all rendered by implication. He has been compared with the French Impressionists, but he sharply disagrees.

“I never ever think that my paintings derived from Western art styles. My art originated purely from the traditional Chinese style," Zhang says. "True, the medium (of oil) comes from the West, but medium means nothing, it’s only a way to achieve what one wants to reflect.”

Zhang still paints every day. The brilliant colors and daunting size reveal the veteran artist’s energy and passion.

“I don’t paint for others, but for myself, because it’s my art, which constantly keeps my mind running and my body strong,” he says.

Exhibition details

Date: May 6-22, 9am-5pm
Venue: China Art Museum
Address: 205 Shangnan Rd, Pudong New Area

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"Deers in Canada" (2005)

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