An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (1889-1975)

Article excerpt

An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (1889-1975), by Geremie R. Barmé. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. xi + 471 pp. US$60.00/£40.00 (hardcover).

Discussions of Chinese art in the 20th century have been chained to narratives of "tradition versus modernity", "Western versus Eastern", "art in the service of the nation" or "art as a tool of revolution". Some of the most enthusiastic drivers of these juggernauts have themselves been significant artists, particularly in the first three decades after the fall of the Qing, when the manufacture of polemic was at least as time-consuming for some prominent players as the manufacture of works of art. In devoting so much effort and care to one highly significant figure, Feng Zikai (1898-1975), whose life and output are so strongly resistant to incorporation within these grand schemes, Geremie Barmé has performed a service to the study of China's 20th-century culture, and has thrown his considerable weight as a cultural historian onto the side of the specific, the local and the individual. He has written by far the most detailed monograph in English on any single Chinese artist of the period, and set a standard for meticulous research and incisive commentary.

Feng Zikai has been all too casually characterized. As the leading proponent of manhua it has been possible to call him a "cartoonist" and, hence, possible for post-1949 art bureaucracies to label him as a "children's artist". No reader of Barmé's book is likely to make that simplistic association again. The complex history Barmé unravels for the term manhua, in its oscillation between classical Chinese resonances stretching back to the Song dynasty and the fashionable Japanese terminology (where it appears as the now-globalized term manga), is symptomatic of the unstable artistic terrain in which any intellectual of Feng's generation was forced to operate. For Feng, the answer lay in being "an artist who developed a personal vision based on the correlation between poetry and painting, but also a man who resisted the temptation to paint a scene unless in imitation of some artistic or poetic model, or classical allusion, unless he could bring to it some new and highly individual perception or appreciation" (p. 107).

An Artistic Exile has the strengths of the best kind of old-fashioned "life and times" biography of the artist, with the focus firmly on Feng himself throughout-what he said and did. …