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Transcending Tradition: The Flowering of a New Artistic Culture in Shanghai

May 6, 2006–October 29, 2006
Gallery 108

During the second half of the 19th century, the coastal city of Shanghai emerged as a vibrant nexus of new wealth and ideas. As part of the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which Great Britain imposed on China after its aggressive victory in the Opium War, Shanghai was designated a treaty port in which foreign powers were able to establish self-governing concessions. With these new economic opportunities also came a diverse group of Chinese entrepreneurs who helped transform Shanghai into a bustling, cosmopolitan city. This unique social environment attracted artists from throughout China, who eventually formed a loose association of painters that is known today as the Shanghai School. Unlike the more conservative, monochrome ink paintings of the educated elite, Shanghai painters, who catered to a newly wealthy clientele, painted with a boldness that imbued past traditions with vitality.

Part I: May 6-July 23
Part II: August 26-October 29

The first part of this exhibition examines the bird-and-flower paintings of Ren Yi (1840-1896), which exhibit a spontaneous style of loose brushwork, ink washes, and great tonal variation. Also displayed is a selection of elegant fans, painted and inscribed by various Shanghai School artists.

The second installation features the innovative brush-and-ink paintings of the eccentric monk-artist Xugu (1823-1896). Although details of his career remain largely unknown, Xugu's highly individualistic works made a lasting impact on 20th-century Chinese art. Using fresh, glowing hues, he created whimsical compositions of frisky squirrels and plump goldfish, which were laden with symbolic connotations derived from Chinese literary and folk traditions. Although Xugu garnered high praise among the insiders of Shanghai's dynamic art scene, he remained relatively unknown to both Chinese and Western collectors until recent years.

Organizer

Art Institute of Chicago

Curator

Elinor Pearlstein, assistant curator of Chinese art

Xugu. Wisteria and Goldfish, 1824-1896, Qing dynasty. Gift of Florence Ayscough and Harley Farnsworth MacNair.