This paper explores the connections between idealism, realism, and imagination in the paintings of Chinese artist Xu Beihong. After Xu Beihong studied Western art in Paris and other cultural centers, he returned to China. He brought with him a unique combination of Western idealism and Western realist painting techniques.
Both of these were essential to his grand project. His goal was to develop a new vision of ideal Chinese masculinity, which would replace conventional depictions of Chinese men (rather androgynous, gentle, stylized, stiff, clothed) with more muscular, heroic, graceful, ideal and naked images. He wanted to combat the visual image of Chinese men as the ‘sick men of East Asia.’
Even though many scholars have written about Xu Beihong, this aspect of his work has been completely ignored or misinterpreted by scholars and art historians. This paper will discuss the reasons for this misinterpretation by combining visual and textual analysis with an examination of the social and cultural circumstances surrounding these works. I will examine his paintings and writings, as well as those of his teachers and mentor artists to uncover his unique imaginative vision.
After a brief discussion of the meanings of idealism, realism and imagination, I will explore Xu Beihong’s key concepts of xcingsi (写形, form likeness) and shensi (写意, spirit likeness), showing how the visual elements of his artworks and principles of design contribute to his new vision of ideal masculinity.
Aihua Zhou is a classical figurative sculptor and draftswoman from Beijing, China. She pursued a professional education at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing before immigrating to the United States, where she studied figurative art at California Lutheran University. She then studied classical figurative sculpture at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, where she received her Master of Fine Arts degree.
She is very interested in images of masculinity in representational art in both practice and research, particularly in late 19th-century and early 20th-century images of cross-cultural ideal man of both East and West.
She is currently attending a doctoral program in art history and visual culture at the University of Exeter, England, focusing on the relationship between the art and culture of the East and West. She teaches drawing at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.