CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 16, December 2008


Masters of 20th-Century Chinese Ink Painting | China Heritage Quarterly

Exhibition Review

Michaela Pejcochova, Masters of 20th-Century Chinese Ink Painting from the Collections of the National Gallery in Prague, Prague: National Gallery in Prague, 2008. 500+pp with numerous illustrations.*

Claire Roberts

Cover of Masters of 20th-Century Chinese Ink Painting from the Collections of the National Gallery in Prague*

In the 1950s and 60s, Czechoslovakia enjoyed a strong political and cultural relationship with the People's Republic of China. The exhibition and publication Masters of 20th-Century Chinese Ink Painting from the Collections of the National Gallery in Prague[1] suggests that the strength of official relations can be traced to the spring of 1949, when representatives of Czechoslovakia, China and a number of other nations were refused visas to attend the World Congress of Defenders of Peace in Paris.

Delegates affected by this 'unfriendly' French policy traveled instead to Prague where they attended a hastily convened parallel meeting.[2] The thirty-member Chinese delegation, lead by the writer and historian Guo Moruo (1892-1978) and including the artist Xu Beihong (1895-1953), was welcomed to Prague by the Sinologist Zdenek Hrdlicka. The group was given a guided tour of Prague's cultural institutions including the National Gallery and the Oriental Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Applied Arts. The following year, Hrdlicka and others were sent to China for four months to develop an agreement on cultural co-operation. At the conclusion of the trip Hrdlicka was asked to stay on in Beijing as cultural attaché, a post that he occupied until 1954.

These events mark the beginning of deep and wide-ranging cultural relations between the two countries. The allocation of funds by the Czech Ministry of Education, Science and Art to their Embassy in Beijing to acquire works of art for the collection of the Czechoslovakian National Gallery is an indication of Czech commitment to the promotion of cross-cultural understanding at that time. In 1952, a high-level government delegation returned from China with the first items to be registered in the National Gallery's newly established Department of Oriental Art. The works included five paintings by Qi Baishi (1864-1957) and one painting each by Xu Beihong and Jiang Zhaohe (1904-1986)—senior artists whose work accorded with the artistic policies of the Communist Party-led 'New China'.

Czech artists, art historians, Sinologists and enlightened government bureaucrats—people who were interested enough in what they were doing to make their way into artists' studios—are central to the story of the development of the Gallery's collection. It is they who are credited with its remarkable richness and depth, making it one of the most significant and fascinating collections of twentieth-century Chinese painting outside China.

The story of the formation of what is now the National Gallery in Prague's collection of contemporary Chinese painting, however, began some thirty years earlier, with the artist turned dealer Vojtech Chytil (1896-1935). Chytil's collection was largely formed in the 1920s when he spent lengthy periods in China, notably Beijing (Beiping). But it was not until the death of Chytil's widow in 1982 that what remained of his large collection was bequeathed to the National Gallery and entered the state collection.[3]

Fig. 1
Fig. 1 Qi Baishi, 'Return from the Pasture among Mountains and Pine Trees', ink and colour on paper, 1931. Originally from the Vojtech Chytil Collection. Purchased in 1959 by the National Gallery in Prague. [Cat. 80]

Chytil's interest in Chinese art, his contact with Chinese artists and his efforts to introduce Chinese painting to Europe, laid an important foundation for the reception of contemporary Chinese painting in Czechoslovakia. The paintings of Qi Baishi, first presented in exhibitions organized by Chtyil in Brno and Prague in 1930 and 1931 respectively,[Fig. 1] continued to be collected by Czech art historians, Sinologists and members of official delegations after 1949. Today, the National Gallery in Prague's collection of Qi Baishi paintings numbers close to 100 works spanning the period from 1920 to 1956, the year before the artist's death. Qi, who in 1953 at the age of ninety-two was named an 'Outstanding Artist of the Chinese People', is arguably China's best-known and most famous twentieth-century artist. Owing to his humble family background and his bold depiction of folk subjects his art successfully negotiated the dramatic shift in artistic policy that occurred after 1949.

While many Western historians of Chinese art have been aware of collections of contemporary Chinese art in Prague through Josef Hejzlar's publication Chinese Watercolours (1978), the extent and depth of the collections was previously unknown. The National Gallery in Prague has strong holdings of Chinese brush-and-ink painting dating from the 1920s and 1930s and the 1950s and 1960s. A comparison of these bodies of works (which is not fully explored in the publication or the exhibition) points to the radical changes that occurred in Chinese political and cultural life after the assumption of Communist rule. The lofty world-view of the scholar-official, primarily expressed through depictions of landscape and birds and flowers and based on suggestion, allusion and respect for past traditions, was replaced by quotidian concerns and works of art that eulogised the mundane activities of workers, peasants and soldiers serving in China's ethnically diverse but singular Communist state.

Masters contains three essays and a catalogue of 196 works, which while not the entire collection includes 'all the works of the most seminal masters of this period ...which have ...been proved authentic'. Michaela Pejcochova, curator of the exhibition and editor of the publication, has written two essays: a survey of the development of Chinese painting over the past two hundred years and an examination of the origins and formation of the Gallery's collection. In the latter essay, Pejcochova provides valuable information, based on archival research and interviews, concerning the individuals and institutions involved in developing the collection. A third essay, by Tomas Winter, explores the important role played by Czech visual artists in the reception of Chinese art and the impact of Chinese art on Czech modernism in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Fig. 2
Fig. 2 Li Keran, 'A Spring Stroll in the Jichang Garden [Wuxi]', ink and colour on paper, undated. Purchased in China in 1995. Collection of the National Gallery in Prague. [Cat. 178]

In addition to work by acknowledged masters of twentieth-century ink painting, including Wu Changshi (1844-1927), Pu Ru (1896-1963), Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), Huang Binhong (1865-1955), Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) and Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), there are important paintings by later artists such as Li Keran (1907-1989) and Guan Shanyue (1912-2000). Within this unique collection there are interesting inter-generational art historical connections to be made, for example the influence of Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong on Li Keran. Among the twenty-one paintings by Li Keran in the Prague collection, are paintings by Li Keran and Luo Ming (1912-1998?) that date from the historic painting trip made, together with Zhang Ding (b.1917), to the Lower Yangtze River delta (Jiangnan) and Huangshan in 1954. During this trip the artists experimented with painting in ink en plein air with the aim of representing the landscape realistically (xiesheng), an approach that was later widely adopted by art academies across the country.

While their efforts to adapt brush and ink painting to contemporary life were sometimes clumsy, they represent genuine attempts to re-engineer China's traditional scholarly art to accord with the new artistic regime. In Hangzhou they visited the aging master Huang Binhong, whose late landscape paintings are characterized by layers of dark ink and unorthodox brushwork. Huang often used a brush that was old and worn, or consciously clipped, creating a distinctive 'broken' or splayed brush stroke. Paintings by Li Keran and Luo Ming in the Prague collection that date from soon after this trip show evidence of the artists' experimentation with dark, layered ink and broken brushwork respectively suggesting a connection between their visit to Huang Binhong's studio and the evolution of their artistic styles.[Fig 2] For Li Keran, the centenary of whose birth was marked in Beijing in 2007, the 1954 trip marks a turning point in his oeuvre, inspiring him to focus on landscape painting.[4]

Fig. 3
Fig 3 Guan Shanyue, 'Winter in the City', ink and colour on paper, 1955. Purchased in China in 1955. Collection of the National Gallery in Prague. [Cat. 196]

Other works in the collection highlight the powerful new Socialist ideology and include a fine undated figure painting by Ye Qianyu (1947-1995), titled 'Tibetan Dancers' (not illustrated in the catalogue but included in the second rotation of paintings) depicting three female dancers performing in brilliantly coloured dress. A feature of the women's costume is a heavy necklace bearing the Han Chinese character 'fu' or happiness. The romantic depiction of the women and the carefully chosen jewellery motif suggests contentment and harmonious Sino-Tibetan relations, even though this painting was created after the People's Liberation Army moved into Tibet. Another thought-provoking work is 'Winter in the City', a large snowscape by the southern Chinese artist Guan Shanyue, best known later in life for his paintings of plum blossom. The painting depicts a distant perspectival view, through hoary old trees, of men clearing snow.[Fig 3] The labourers, with their horse and cart, are working to restore a road leading to an open gateway of a yellow-glazed-tile-topped vermillion wall, indicating an imperial site. The painting is significant for the fact that it depicts ordinary working people moving freely in and out of an imperial complex, once the exclusive domain of the Emperor, imperial clans and courtiers. Purchased by the Prague National Gallery in China in 1955, soon after it was painted, this work highlights the ingenuity of artists in applying traditional techniques to the depiction of realistic genre scenes of 'New China'. It also suggests the rich holdings of Chinese paintings that were acquired by the National Gallery in Prague during the 1950s.

Masters of 20th-Century Chinese Ink Painting from the Collections of the National Gallery in Prague is a handsomely produced and scholarly publication, supported by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation International Sinological Centre at Charles University in Prague. It is an important and welcome addition to the work done on twentieth-century Chinese painting, highlighting the significance of individual artworks and the Gallery collection as a whole. A sequel to this fine publication, focusing on the work of more recent masters and the paintings acquired by the Prague National Gallery in China in the 1950s and 1960s, would be a welcome future contribution to this relatively neglected area of Chinese art historical scholarship.


[*] See also my review published in the journal Umêní (Art), published by the Institute for Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. See:

[1] Michaela Pejcochova, Masters of 20th-Century Chinese Ink Painting From the Collections of the National Gallery in Prague, Prague: National Gallery in Prague, 2008. The exhibition was displayed at the Waldstein Riding School Gallery, Prague, in two rotations 30 April-27 July and 2 August-2 November 2008.

[2] Ibid., pp.30-31, and Open Society Archives, The Czechoslovak Committee of the Defenders of Peace, at:, accessed on 25 August 2008.

[3] The National Gallery acquired some items after the end of the Second World War. See Michaela Pejcochova, ibid, p.29.

[4] See Claire Roberts, 'A Century of Li Keran: Commemorating the Centenary of a guohua Artist', at: