Zhu Qizhan Mountain landscape

Zhu Qizhan was born in Taichang, Jiangsu province, China, in the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911), and was a professor, dean of the Western Fine Art School of Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts and an adviser to the Chinese Artists Association. In his twenties, Zhu studied Western paintings at the Shanghai Fine Art College, founded by the renowned artist Liu Haisu (1896–1994). In 1918 Zhu went to Japan to study with the Japanese artist Fujishima Takeji, renowned for his Western-style paintings, and in 1936 founded the Moshe Fine Art Association with Xu Beihong (1895–1953) and other artists. Zhu was banned from painting when the Chinese Cultural Revolution began in 1966, and on resuming his practice in 1976 created many great works, including the Hongmei Tu (Red Japanese apricot) for the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

At ninety-two years of age, Zhu was asked to paint the now-renowned painting Putao tu (Grapes) for the city of San Francisco – Shanghai’s sister city. In February 1995, Zhu held an exhibition at the British Museum, London, and in June that same year he held another exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. At the time, Zhu was the only Chinese master artist to develop a relationship with a foreign art gallery. He went on to hold fifteen exhibitions in New York. The Shanghai government built a museum in Zhu Qizhan’s name in 1995. The artist peacefully passed away on 20 April 1996 at the age of 105 in Chinese years.

Mountain landscape is inscribed ‘已亥春月 屺瞻百歲亖年’ (‘In the [cyclical year] yihai [1995] spring month, Qizhan at the age of 104 years old’) and was painted a year before Zhu passed away. It integrates traditional Chinese landscape painting with twentieth-century Western-style painting. The brilliant and vibrant green, blue and orange colours evoke the techniques of Western oil painting, possibly landscape paintings by Paul Cézanne, although these colours also appear in traditional Chinese paintings in the green and blue style of the Tang dynasty (618–906). The mountain forms are accentuated and outlined with traditional calligraphic brushstrokes in ink, and the blank areas of the painting, as in traditional Chinese landscapes, evoke clouds and mists. Moreover, nestled in the valleys are village dwellings that recall countryside near Nanjing.

In spite of experiencing a lifetime and a century of political turmoil – including the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, civil wars, the Sino-Japanese War, the Communist Revolution, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution – Zhu shows much hope and optimism in this brilliant and colourful painting from 1995. What is most significant is that it demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit.

Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2014)