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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston organizes first-ever museum exhibition of revolutionary Chinese 'bapo' paintings
Unknown Chinese Artist, Untitled, 1900. Ink and color on paper. Anonymous gift in memory of William W. Mellins. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- This summer, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened China’s 8 Brokens: Puzzles of the Treasured Past, the first-ever museum exhibition dedicated to bapo (“eight brokens”) painting, a revolutionary artistic genre that emerged in China during the mid-19th century. Bapo refers to the damaged cultural ephemera hyper-realistically depicted in the works—worm-eaten calligraphies, partial book pages, burned paintings, remnants of rubbings and torn-open letters. The term “eight brokens” also alludes to the hidden messages of the images—often wishes for good fortune. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, and broken, or less-than-complete, objects can also have favorable implications, since perfection could bring about misfortune. The art form was largely forgotten after 1949, but has recently been rediscovered by contemporary artists and collectors, prompting curators to decipher the meaning of the images, and solve the puzzle of the paintings. The MFA houses the largest museum collection of bapo paintings, and 32 new acquisitions are on view to the public for the first time in this exhibition of more than 40 works, which also features important loans from museums and private collections located in the US and Asia. China’s 8 Brokens: Puzzles of the Treasured Past is on view in the Lee Gallery from June 17 through October 19, 2017, and an illustrated publication—the first to focus on bapo painting—is planned for release in 2018.

China’s 8 Brokens: Puzzles of the Treasured Past showcases the finest examples of bapo painting dating back to the 19th century alongside three-dimensional decorative and functional objects that feature bapo imagery, such as porcelain plates and inner-painted snuff bottles. Additionally, the exhibition showcases how the genre visually resonates with European and American trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) paintings, as well as how contemporary Chinese artists are reviving the bapo aesthetic.

“Many of the bapo paintings—with their deteriorating remnants of traditional culture—are declarations of mourning for the past, but others are filled with humor and hidden messages. The exhibition is designed to assist viewers in decoding and delighting in these puzzles,” said Nancy Berliner, the MFA’s Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art, who organized the exhibition and was the first scholar to undertake a thorough study of bapo painting.

Bapo dates back to the mid-19th century, when a number of artists across China departed from the age-old subjects of landscapes and figures. Instead, they began to paint illusionistic compositions that depict deteriorating fragments of cultural treasures of the past, arranged in a haphazard manner. Although bapo works bear a resemblance to European and American trompe l’oeil paintings and modern collages, the aesthetic grew directly out of Chinese visual traditions. The practice of pasting multiple cherished calligraphies or paintings on a single panel, such as a screen, first arose in 8th-century China. It flourished again in the 17th century, reflecting a penchant among some nouveau riche for flaunting the plentitude of their personal collections. After centuries of pasting and fastidiously reproducing ancient masterworks, some artists began to create disorderly representations of decomposing papers and artifacts, creating a surprising new genre that carried into the 20th century.

As bapo spread from town to town and artist to artist, styles proliferated and meanings multiplied. Clever artists hid layers of meaning within their assemblages, and clever viewers took on the enticing challenge of deciphering them. Often, these unconventional works reflected conventional messages, such as mourning for the past. In Willing to Reside in a Shabby Alley (1945) by Chen Bingchang (1896–1971), four characters on an imprinted seal within the composition translate literally to “protect the deficient and look after that which is lacking”—that is, to cherish broken and worn-out things. The ancient expression dates back at least 2,000 years and echoes the bapo sentiments of treasuring even the damaged remnants of the past. Another traditional message frequently incorporated into bapo paintings was wishing for good fortune. In Scepter (1950), Zheng Zuochen (1891–1956) formed his collage of finely limned papers into the shape of a ruyi, a traditional Chinese scepter. The word ruyi translates literally to “may you achieve all you desire,” and the Chinese viewer would immediately recognize the shape and its intended meaning. Likewise, in a 1934 work attributed to Yang Weiquan (1885–after 1940), the paper fragments form a rock—a symbol of longevity in China.

For socially aspiring patrons, bapo paintings also offered an opportunity to flaunt their own sophistication. Traditional Chinese society held scholars and their lifestyle in the highest regard, and many of the items seen in bapo works are the paper accoutrements of the literati life—ancient artworks, classic writings and treasured artifacts from antiquity. The ability to distinguish a famous poem or artwork was proof of cultural sophistication. Lotus Summer of the Xinghai Year (1911) by Liu Lingheng (1870–1949), for example, contains a painting within a painting. The full, open fan seen at the top bears a monochrome landscape—an imitation of the 18th-century artist Wang Hui.

Some artists hid political commentary within bapo paintings. The 19th century was a disastrous time in China, filled with violent domestic rebellions and invasions from British and French forces—only a preface to further destruction during the 20th century, which brought more incursions by foreign armies, occupation of the Forbidden City (1900), toppling of the imperial dynasty (1911), invasion of the Japanese (1930s), World War II and civil war between the Communist and Nationalist parties. Instead of explicitly criticizing present circumstances, many bapo artists expressed their reactions through relevant references to the past. In his four-piece work Burned, Ruined, Damaged Fragments (1938), Li Chengren invoked an ancient calamity that occurred in 213 BC. According to legend, the hegemonic first emperor of China, known as Qin Shi Huang, commanded the burning of all books that were inconsistent with his own approach to governing—a historic conflagration that led to the tragic near-loss of all Confucian texts. Li created his painting shortly after the horrific Massacre of Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese war, in which up to 300,000 people perished. With his reference to the devastating Qin Shi Huang, the artist may have been subtly alluding to the ghastly current state of his country.

In addition to paintings, several examples of decorative arts featuring bapo designs are on view in the exhibition, showcasing how the aesthetic had integrated into the popular culture of the 19th and 20th centuries. Among these is an inner-painted snuff bottle, made to contain tobacco leaves and decorated by artist Ding Erzhong using a tiny brush squeezed through the vessel’s orifice. Other highlights include a colorfully glazed porcelain plate (19th century, Peabody Essex Museum) featuring an ink dragon painting and Meeting Immortal Friends, a rare example of bapo silk embroidery that remarkably and realistically translates the visual characteristics of an ancient rubbing into a textile.

By the 1980s, awareness of bapo had all but faded. However, following the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), several artists began to revive the art form. Geng Xuezhi (born 1973) creates dynamic compositions, infused with updated materials and a sharp graphic sensibility. His painting The Jade Rabbit Welcomes the Spring (2016) features contemporary newspapers, children’s cartoons and the cover of a 1950s children’s book. One fragment is a child’s drawing of a rabbit—Geng’s copy of a work by his own daughter.

Other contemporary works on view include Bapo Picture of a Pile of Brocade Ashes (2006) by Wang Chao (born 1974), an artist known for his use of the traditional Chinese woodblock printing medium, and Tang Taizong and Wang Yuanqi (2005), an oil painting by Chen Danqing (born 1953), from a series depicting European and Chinese art books that the artist had collected over the years. While the resonance of his work with bapo painting is palpable, Chen—one of China’s most celebrated contemporary oil painters—had never seen or heard of the genre until many years after he began this series of paintings.

“It is a rare opportunity—and incredibly exciting—to discover, investigate and put back into the public knowledge a historic and radically modern-looking art form that had never been recorded and that was all but forgotten,” said Berliner. “To see young artists now inspired to revive it with their own modern interpretations is a thrill.”

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