Friendship in Art

Fou Lei and Huang Binhong


Claire Roberts

ISBN : 978-988-8028-40-5

Film, Media, Fine Arts

June 2010

252 pages, 7″ x 10″

  • HK$295.00

This book documents in letters, photos, and paintings a special friendship between two highly creative individuals who helped shape Chinese culture in the twentieth century—the revered traditional painter Huang Binhong (1865–1955) and the young, cosmopolitan critic and translator Fou Lei (1908–66). As one of China’s oldest and most distinguished artists in the 1940s and 1950s, Huang Binhong was committed to artistic continuity and reinvigoration of brush-and-ink painting. Fou Lei was a child of the New Culture Movement which repudiated many literati traditions, but reached out to Huang Binhong to discuss the possibilities for contemporary Chinese art amid the tides of war and Communist dictates of socialist realism as the guiding priority for cultural workers. Both were cultural mediators and translators of ideas and cultural expressions. Both had deep appreciation of the common origins of calligraphy and painting, rendering complex feelings with brush and ink. Their intimate artistic conversations over more than a decade depict their alienation and uncertainty amid China’s turbulent cultural politics.

Claire Roberts is a curator and historian of Chinese art. She is a research fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University.

Friendship in Art sets up a new paradigm in the study of Chinese art. The case is as good as it gets: a cosmopolitan Chinese steeped in Western learning corresponding with a modern-minded painter practicing and re-animating the traditional Chinese brush-and-ink medium. The Europhile and the literatus have more in common than one might think. They also bring out more from each other. The meeting of their minds and facilities made history. Between the two, sense and sensibility were verbalized and pictured, polemic positions and brushstrokes hardened and softened. All those facile oppositions—tradition and modernity, East and West, text and images—evaporate into thin air. This engrossing duet offers a rare glimpse into the complex dynamics of Chinese visual culture in the throes of modernization. The dynamics haven’t changed much today; the story of Huang Binhong and Fou Lei still holds.” —Eugene Wang, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art, Harvard University

“This is a work of great originality which opens readers’ eyes to the importance of crossing conventional boundaries when discussing and interpreting major events and trends in recent Chinese art and literature. The erudite and subtle treatment of this complex relationship reveals truths not only in art and literature, but also in understanding China’s wider search for a political and cultural identity.” —John Minford, head of the Asian Studies’ China Centre, The Australian National University

“This compelling book documents the remarkable intellectual relationship between two men whose worlds might seem completely separate: Fou Lei, a dedicated modernist writer and beloved translator of French literature; and Huang Binhong, a renowned traditionalist ink painter and historian of Chinese painting. Translations of well-chosen letters between them, beautifully selected illustrations, and careful historical analysis enable Roberts to explain the surprising ways in which the aesthetic and cultural beliefs of two extraordinary men from very different backgrounds came into perfect harmony. Roberts’s work strongly suggests that modernism and traditionalism in twentieth-century Chinese art were not polar opposites.” —Julia Andrews, professor of history of art, Ohio State University

“The contact between Fou Lei and Huang Binhong over decades of correspondence allows us unique insights into the history of modern Chinese culture. Through their exchanges, both in letter and in spirit, we gain entrée into how a European-trained man of letters and a scholar-artist imbued with the Chinese tradition saw and discussed art, culture and history. Through her painstaking work, Claire Roberts has provided non-Chinese readers with elegant access to this profoundly significant cultural conversation.” —Geremie R. Barmé, author of The Forbidden City (2008)