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Alongside Wu Changshuo, Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong, Pan Tianshou is considered one of China’s four greatest painting masters of the 20th Century. On May 2, 2017, an exhibition commemorating the 120th birthday of Pan Tianshou opened at the National Art Museum of China, luring the public to take a closer look at the work of this master. The exhibition traces the life of Pan Tianshou as an artist, educator and art theorist through 120 works including his representative paintings, manuscripts and calligraphy.
Pan’s exhibition covers five halls and two corridors of the museum, making it the largest ever held for a single artist at the museum. Located in the center of the first hall is a 1964 work that measures seven meters tall and three meters wide¡ªhis largest painting. “Of Chinese painting masters, Pan Tianshou topped in over-sized work,” opined Wu Guanzhong, a renowned contemporary Chinese painter. “His composition is like building a mansion. His large paintings are genuine massive masterpieces.”
Pan used tough strokes to paint various plants, giving them a towering presentation. In composition, by breaking traditional themes of Chinese landscape and flower-and-bird paintings, Pan depicted scenery more realistically, and created a genre of landscape painting in which the primary components occupy just a corner of the paper. “Pan Tianshou’s work is so moving because of his profound understanding of the essence of the genre,” remarks Li Jinkun, president of Guangdong Artists Association. “Yet, he developed Chinese painting in his own way, which shook off traditional patterns to some extent.”
The context behind Pan’s strokes runs even deeper. In the 20th Century, Chinese painting was heavily impacted by Western painting. The New Culture Movement of the 1910s and 1920s called for increased usage of Western artistic techniques to reform traditional Chinese painting. In this context, Western sketch and oil painting became extremely popular in China, and traditional Chinese painting was marginalized. Traditional Chinese painting, a pillar of Chinese culture, seemed to be facing extinction. During this time, Pan advocated that “Chinese painting and Western painting should keep a distance.” He said, “Chinese and Western arts can communicate, which should result in distinction between them rather than shared content and patterns.”
As many artists were trading brushes for pencils, Pan held firm to traditional Chinese painting. One of the seals he used is carved with Chinese characters literally meaning “always overbearing and bold,” in contrast to the ideal aesthetics of Chinese culture. Pan defied traditional culture in favor of a determination to develop, reform and innovate Chinese painting based on traditional rules. His efforts created significant tension that can be seen on his canvases. His choices also evidenced his devotion to safeguard traditional Chinese painting.