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Masters of 20th-Century Traditional Chinese Painting from the Collections of the National Gallery in Prague

PRAGUE.- The National Gallery in Prague houses a unique collection of 20th-century Chinese traditional painting, unparalleled in scope and quality among other Western collections of Chinese art. Its specific features are related to the early intensive contacts between Czech artists and art historians (i.e. Josef Martínek or Vojtěch Chytil) and their Chinese counterparts dating back to the first quarter of the 20th century. The contacts lasted after the World War II, when they were even institutionalized by the Ministry of Culture, making the Czech Republic one of the few foreign countries where it was quite easy to acquire some masterpieces of contemporary Chinese painting. Moreover, some of the works of art were bought directly from the authors, so that the question of authenticity, painful as it is in other cases, is not so pressing. Other paintings brought to Czech lands were still easily accessible on the art market of the time and include therefore some rare masterpieces.

The collection amounts to 200 masterpieces (of the total 300 works ascribed to these masters) by the 20th-century painters and its core is formed by the paintings of Qi Baishi (1864–1957). It includes a rare album of grass and insects on silk or a part of a letter addressed to one of the Czech collectors. Besides, paintings of most of the traditional genres and techniques – i.e. landscapes, figures, bamboo, prawns, crabs, flowers and birds etc. – by Qi Baishi are also present.

One of the other famous masters of this period is Li Keran (1907–1089), whose more than 20 paintings are part of the collection. Most of them represent the familiar theme of water buffalos; others are depictions of landscapes or figures. The collection comprises both Chinese-style pictures and paintings influenced by Western concepts, much valued in the work of this author today. Lin Fengmian (1900–1991), whose 5 paintings of landscapes and figures are part of the collection, was noted for incorporating the Western influences into a unique painting style, too. Among others, Fu Baoshi (1904–1965), Huang Binhong (1865–1955), Xu Beihong (1895–1953) or Pu Ru (1896–1963) can be listed as prominent authors of works included in the collection. A unique early figural work by Pu Ru, who moved to Taiwan after 1949 and deeply influenced the style of later Taiwanese traditional painters, can be cited as another example of the collections’ strong points.

The collection comprises also works by lesser-known painters, mostly followers or pupils of the above-mentioned masters. Though not forming a representative whole, as the works of the earlier masters do, these paintings can show the way in which their styles were modified and transformed later.

In the past, some of the artworks in question were studied and published by Czech sinologists and two exhibitions organized by Czech galleries were aiming at presenting the work of Qi Baishi to the public. Nevertheless, despite the complete and unique character of the collection, it has never been published or exhibited as a whole. It is urgently lacking in proper scholarly evaluation and publication in the context of recent knowledge of the topic. The painting style, date and authenticity of most of the pieces has to be reassessed in cooperation with the eminent experts in this field and the results published for the benefit of both general public and specialists on Chinese painting.

Therefore, the National Gallery in Prague decided to undertake a long-term research project, supported by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for Scholarly Research, aiming at publishing and exhibiting the works of the 20th-century Chinese painters in its collections. The result of the project will be a catalogue of all the works published in Czech and English languages and an exhibition taking place in April-October 2008 in the Waldstein Riding School Gallery in Prague.

In the catalogue, all the works will be thoroughly analyzed in the context of other world collections of the 20th-century Chinese painting, including the explanation of the accompanying inscriptions and seals and the evaluation of the paintings in the body of each of the authors’ works. The catalogue will also include the introduction of all the artists present in the exhibition and essays pertaining to the development of the traditional Chinese painting in the 20th century, as well as the history of Czech collecting and connoisseurship of these works. This kind of exhibition will be unequalled in the history of presenting the Chinese art to Czech public. For the first time, it will make the Czech art-loving visitors aware of this part of cultural treasures housed by National Gallery as well as the intensive contacts of Czech artists and connoisseurs with Chinese art world. At the same time, it is hoped that the publication of the collection will contribute to deeper understanding and encourage further study of this field of Chinese painting history.

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