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Chinese collectors pay huge sums to treasure artist Xu Beihong's heroic horses
A woman lookis at a Chinese painting named "Six Galloping Horses" during an art exhibit by Xu Beihong at a museum in Beijing. Galloping with the vigour of strong and simple brush strokes, the horses painted by late Chinese master Xu Beihong inspired his countrymen to endure in wartime -- and now to pay huge sums to treasure them. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO.

By: Sébastien Blanc

BEIJING (AFP).- Galloping with the vigour of strong and simple brush strokes, the horses painted by late Chinese master Xu Beihong inspired his countrymen in wartime -- and now to pay huge sums to treasure them.

Xu, who died in 1953, created horses that pulsed with beauty and bravery just as China was knuckling under Japanese occupation in the 1930s and 1940s, imbuing them with realism learned at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

His works have soared in desirability at the same time as his country's leaders pursue a national renaissance and strike an aggressive posture in territorial disputes with Japan.

"He created his horses mainly during the War of Resistance (against Japan) and put all of his emotion into his paintings," his son Xu Qingping told AFP.

"Horses are very beautiful, loyal, courageous and they always lead the charge to victory. I believe this is why Chinese people love his paintings."

Having studied animal anatomy in Paris, Xu "came up with a special technique, using free brushstrokes, very few lines and only ink", he said.

Among Xu's hundreds of horses, the most sought-after are those racing ahead, hooves in the air. Those commanding the highest prices -- upwards of $1 million -- are shown chest forward, head tossed to the side.

"The horses have expressive poses. Some are standing, some are galloping, or drinking water by the river," said Carmen Ip, a specialist in Chinese art for auction house Sotheby's.

"Under Xu's strong brush strokes, they are muscular, lean and full of energy. He uses different shades of ink against white paper, creating light and shadow effect."

French influences
Collectors also value the artwork for the inscriptions that Xu wrote on their foil edge.

They often contained a poem, such as those from the celebrated Tang dynasty (618-907) poet Du Fu, encouraging people not to give up, Ip said.

"This is especially meaningful during a time of political instability in China," she said. "He was not only a great artist, he was also a passionate patriot."

Several museums in China are dedicated to Xu, who became a father figure of Chinese painting and chaired the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing.

An exhibition currently on in the Chinese capital, A Master and His Masters, displays 60 of his pictures along with 60 French works that influenced him.

The effects are most visible in his representations of the human body, an essential aspect of his training in Paris, said Philippe Cinquini, the show's curator.

Chinese artists had virtually stopped depicting the body by the 19th century, whereas the tradition had been developing in the West for 500 years.

"Xu Beihong played a key role in returning the human body to Chinese painting," he said.

Fifth top artist
In recent years several Chinese painters have surpassed traditional Western superstars at international auctions.

Three Chinese artists were among the global top five for the total value of works auctioned in 2011, according to world art database Artprice, including Zhang Daqian in first place.

Xu was fifth, just behind Pablo Picasso.

His most expensive work, Cultivation on the Peaceful Land, fetched $42.2 million including buyer's premium in Beijing that year.

Purchased almost entirely by Chinese, Xu's works "increase in value steadily over time", said Artprice chairman and founder Thierry Ehrmann.

But copying is rife in China, and they are among the most replicated paintings, with various owners claiming to have 10,000 of his pieces in total, according to his son -- far more than his authenticated actual production of 3,000.

It can present risks for his buyers.

A painting of a nude attributed to him, The Body of Miss Jiang Biwei, sold for more than $11 million in Beijing four years ago, only for scandal to erupt when a group of artists revealed that one of them had painted the image during a class at CAFA -- 30 years after Xu's death.



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