Artist paints city history into the modern era
Wang Jiafang, a Chinese landscape artist, has spent the past five years in his studio in Minhang District painting city landscape works.
The artist recently created a scroll painting featuring Minhang's Pujiang First Bay and 12 urban landscape paintings on the district's history, culture, tourism, industry, infrastructure, education and entertainment facilities.
The paintings are a gesture to honor the urban landscape of the city, and trace the evolution of Shanghai-style culture.
Finding art in shikumen lanes
"I was born in a Shanghai shikumen (stone-gate) neighborhood in the late 1950s. We joyfully did all kinds of fun things, like playing marbles. I used colored chalks to draw on walls. Stories that happened in our neighborhood were bitter and sweet, and unique to the urban life in Shanghai," said Wang.
"Some of my childhood friends stopped drawing with chalk, but I continued with it and realized art was my calling in life."
The artist has been painting for over 50 years. He hopes his work will strike a chord with their viewers.
"A good piece of artwork engages its viewers like a good play invites its audience to relate to its characters. An artist without a thorough understanding of the world he's creating is like a faded color. Their work exists but it's transparent," Wang said.
When the artist was standing in front of the Xiang Family Residence on Jiangchuan Road in Minhang, he was impressed by the architecture and history. Generations of the Xiang Family were patriotic merchants with scholarly pursuits. The residence itself is a combination of both Chinese and Western designs. It is not simply a four-walled house or a villa, and the Shanghai elements are so obvious.
"So I painted the residence as one of the 12 urban landscape paintings of Minhang," said Wang.
"I hope my visual expressions, somewhat based on the objective and reality, will delight the viewers, and perhaps allow them to feel they are part of the city, and then grow with it."
Inspiration from historic rivers
Since Shanghai was forced to open as a treaty port in 1843, it's now nearing 180 years.
"Its contemporary and modern culture is worth my reflection and inspires my drawings," the artist added.
Wang painted a landscape painting that features Pujiang First Bay in the Huangpu River's Minhang section, as a silent witness to the district's historic changes and industrial prosperity, and also as a prologue to the series of the 12 urban landscape paintings.
He named the work "Look North from the Huangpu River Minhang Section."
The Huangpu River, which connects Taihu Lake to the East China Sea via Pujiang First Bay, used to be an inconspicuous river. During rainy seasons when the Taihu Lake failed to drain enough water, the area suffered from frequent floods, hurting the agriculture and economy of the region. The condition worsened in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with heavy flooding.
Water specialist Ye Zonghang from Minhang proposed to the then minister of revenue to combine the estuaries of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek (now the Bund area). Pujiang First Bay was the first part of the project along the Huangpu River.
"After the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek were converged and foreign cultures were introduced here, along with the city's enforced identity as a treaty port, we had this Waitanyuan, or the origin of the Bund," Wang noted.
Walter Henry Medhust, a London missionary, foretold its promising future. He built a cathedral, schools and some commercial facilities near the Bund, which attracted the earliest batch of foreign merchants to the city. Shanghai soon developed into an "Oriental Paris."
"Henceforward, fashionable and avant-garde culture co-developed with traditional culture in this magic land of Shanghai," said Wang.
"Yet Shanghai's rise to a metropolitan city started here, around the headstream part of the Huangpu River."
Painting the evolution of culture
The Maqiao culture, located in Minhang's Maqiao Town – the center of Shanghai's ancient north-south ridge area, dates back about 3,200-3,900 years. It was there when Shanghai shed off its nameless identity and began its rise toward a modern metropolitan city.
Around 6,500 years ago the area was a vast expanse of ocean. Five hundred years later land started to form here. Another 2,000 years later, the coastal line moved several kilometers eastward and thus began the traces of human settlements.
"Chinese culture evolved from an inland culture to include marine culture. I chose painting as my way of understanding the world," said Wang.
The Qibao Old Town is portrayed in the 12 urban landscape paintings. Wang painted the old town in its modern milieu and how the town's typical Jiangnan-style scenery is able to delight people.
The Zhaojialou area, another ancient town in Minhang, is noted for its well-preserved architecture. Wang painted it in a Chinese ink-and-wash painting.
"I portrayed Zhaojialou and Qibao Old Town to honor a culture Minhang had inherited from its ancient civilization. Then we'll discuss its present and future. So I thought about its education and cultural promotion," Wang said.
He portrayed several schools – Minhang and Qibao high schools, East China Normal University, the Shanghai Theater Academy and Shanghai Jiao Tong University – in one picture to show the district's respect for education and talent.
Another painting shows a bird's-eye view of a landmark cultural cluster – the Haipai Museum, Minhang Museum and Powerlong Museum. "The district is investing in culture and art and bringing different art forms from home and abroad to benefit its people," Wang said.
In the 1950s as China carried out urban construction, Minhang Satellite City, known for its "Big Four Factories," namely, Shanghai Steam Turbine Factory, Shanghai Electrical Machinery Plant, Shanghai Heavy Machinery Plant and the Shanghai Boiler Factory, were built up.
Worker communities with well-equipped three- or four-story buildings, a variety of shops and bustling boulevards were constructed alongside Jiangchuan Road, or No. 1 Road, which was built in 78 days.
In June 1958 a plan was issued to manufacture a 10,000-ton water hydraulic press. The Jiangnan Shipyard and dozens of factories, including the Shanghai Heavy Machinery Plant in Minhang, took charge of the project.
The technical team did sufficient research work and overcame tech barriers including huge metal block cutting, huge piece hoisting and conveying, huge piece heat treatment and electroslag welding.
In June 1962 China's first self-designed and manufactured 10,000-ton water hydraulic press was put into use.
"It was a marvelous accomplishment that our country made the 10,000-ton water hydraulic press in an era of industrial lag in the 1960s," said Wang.
The district is also where the Jinjiang Amusement Park, Shanghai's first amusement park, is located.
When it opened for business on February 1, 1985, it created a city-wide sensation. People rushed to experience Shanghai's first big amusement park.
"The park is noted for its big Ferris wheel. Through my painting, I implied the opening-up policy of our country will continue as the Ferris wheel is rolling forever," said Wang.
Besides, there're Metro Line 5 and Minpu Bridge in Wang's 12 urban landscape series. "They show that the district highly regards its transport and infrastructure facilities," Wang said.
The series also include the Xinzhuang overpass and the district's achievements in aerospace and aviation industries.
"As an artist, this is what I've done with my time: Use my paintings to reflect the path of history and the city," said Wang.
"There are miles of road ahead, and I'll further explore the topic."