PAINTER Zhang Gongque has never sought the limelight or pursued money and fame. He never held a solo exhibition in China. And he seldom sells a work of art, preferring to keep it at home.
Today, at the age of 90 and at the urging of former students, he is holding his first solo exhibition in China at the Shanghai Art Museum through May 4.
Sixty recent canvases are on display.
Zhang, a Shanghai native, was tutored by Wu Dayu and Lin Fengmian during his study at the National Art Academy in Hangzhou in the 1940s. The academy, known for teaching Western art concepts, nurtured Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-chun, all big names in the history of contemporary art.
Unlike many of his peers, Zhang is very low-key and low-profile and he doesn't hob-knob with other artists, critics or gallery owners. He sells very few works and doesn't push to sell.
"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 with the outside world."
Early in the 1940s, Zhang started to pursue an abstract style and created a painting titled "White Wrapped by Dark." But during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), Zhang had to destroy many of his works to avoid physical attacks because of his bourgeois preferences.
He used a pair of scissors to cut "White Wrapped by Dark' into pieces but he kept the pieces, and in 1990 when he was invited to a joint exhibition in the United States, he retrieved the pieces and put them together to create a new work.
He stores his paintings at home, like treasures.
But his former students, all still admirers, organized the exhibition as they thought Zhang's art should be appreciated by the public.
"Zhang refuses fame and money, which is rare today on China's art scene," says Shi Jianbang, a noted art critic. "I am not only amazed at his veteran brushwork but his reverence and passion for art as well."
His subjects range from landscapes to animals and flowers, all rendered by implication.
He has been compared with the French Impressionists, but the artist sharply disagrees.
"I never, never think that my paintings derived a lot from Western art styles, my art originated purely from the traditional Chinese art style," Zhang says. "True, the medium of oil comes from the West, but in my eyes, medium means nothing, it's only a way to achieve what one wants to reflect.
Zhang still paints every day.
"Many people say that I appear younger than I am," he says. "Perhaps painting is my own way to build up my body and constantly keep my mind running."
Shui Tianzhong, vice chairman at the Art Theory Commission of the Chinese Artists' Association, says, "Zhang reveals the same rhythms that paralleled the great artists of his generation. In his latest works, free-hand writing replaces shaping and overlapping, which leads to a more spiritual and ideal level of art."
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