REVIEWS: VISUAL ARTS - A landscape of hidden clues

Pu Quan and His Generation: Imperial Painters of 20th-century China Ashmolean Museum Oxford oooo9
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At a first, superficial glance, the later paintings of Pu Quan (1913-91), cousin to Pu Yi, the last of the Qing emperors of China, seem like a smooth continuation of everything that had gone before in classical Chinese landscape painting. On the long rolls of silk, which we read from top to bottom or bottom to top, we make out tier upon tier of forbidding peaks, all wreathed in cloud, the odd lonely traveller, the furious gush of mountain streams, a contemplative group standing beside the water and, as ever, those hardy trees leaning precariously out into the void.

This is not a description of a single painting, though it comes close to Landscape with Waterfall of the 1980s. Instead it plucks out characteristic details from a number of the later paintings of Pu Quan in order to make the single most important point to be made about this fascinating show of 20th-century Chinese painting: it is evident from the work here that time-honoured traditions of classical Chinese landscape painting lived on well after the fall of empire, and right through to the Mao era and beyond.

Consider Pu Quan himself. Born into the last generation of the Qing imperial family, by the age of 30 he had become a professor at the National Beijing Art School. Surviving sketches from those years give us proof that he was teaching his students everything that they would need to know about the glories of the past: how to paint trees, rocks, waterfalls, clouds. It all looks so serenely, and perhaps even so cunningly, apolitical.

But the story of Pu Quan is not that of a man who kept his head down at all. As we see when we examine some of his paintings of the 1960s - Wu River, for example - Pu was, on the outside at least, an enthusiastic supporter of the Communist revolution. This painting, which depicts a particularly furious stretch of river overlooked by banks of steep cliffs, is traditional in every way but two, and these two details are highly significant. The boat on the river is not of the usual kind - some wooden skiff propelled along by a peasant. Its shape and its mast suggest that this is a naval craft. Even more telling is the tiny red flag that flies from the highest point of the highest peak.

The lines of calligraphy - which, unusually, run down the side of the mountain - tell us a little more: "safely crossing the perilous Wu River, the first sailing after navigation re-opened". The full story is this: Pu Quan is making an overt reference to the successful crossing of the Wu river by the Red Army in January 1935, in the course of the Long March. Some time later, in the same province of Guizhou, Mao himself was proclaimed leader of the Central Committee. So this painting, so traditional in subject matter and treatment in so many respects, is also a piece of quite pointed Communist propaganda.

This painting was made during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards were rampaging through the Chinese countryside destroying Tang Dynasty temples and as much of the past as they could seize hold of. A war was going on against the very idea of tradition. And yet this man at least was managing to uphold the virtues of a middle way, one which would both recognise the greatness of the past and espouse the cause of the present.

Why should this be so? Mao, it seems, was only fitfully destructive. There were aspects of the past to which he felt sympathetic. He was a published poet, and we know that he revered the poetry of the Tang Dynasty. Did his reverence for classical poetry cause him to feel some sympathy for painters too?

One of the items in this show is called The Long March, and it is dated 1975. It consists of a poem by Mao in celebration of the Long March, an eight-line poem in a form developed by the Tang Dynasty more than 1,000 years before. The poem was written by Mao in 1935. Forty years later, Pu Quan recorded it, in ink, on paper. The style of calligraphy he uses is not much like his habitual manner of writing - it is much more thin and cursive. According to the catalogue, it is more like the handwriting of Mao himself.

With what subtlety the present can melt into the past - and vice versa, of course.

To 12 March (01865 278000)