SCMP Friday, July 27, 2001

Art for art's sake


The Chinese have a belief that a woman's fu qi, or good fortune, is revealed in her hands. If a woman possesses delicate hands, she will not endure hardship. I question that theory when I shake the slender, silky-smooth hand of painter Dr Fang Zhaoling. Neither her hands, nor her petite and delicate frame, give any indication of an artist who struggled through two wars and raised eight children on her own. ''Life is tough, but if it was not tough I would not understand the meaning of it,'' Fang says. ''I have high spirits.''
Few artists in Hong Kong command the same kind of public interest as Fang. The opening ceremony for her exhibition at the Hong Kong Central Library on Monday saw more hoopla than any other recent event on the local art scene. Flanked by her equally famous daughter, former chief secretary for administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang, and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, more than 50 photographers and cameramen jockeyed for position to capture one of the territory's most famous, albeit elusive, art personalities.
Fang was unfazed by all the attention. She lives a much more relaxed lifestyle than the one she had for most of her remarkable 50-year career, which is the subject of a retrospective entitled ''The Majestic Brush''. ''I have always just painted for myself, it doesn't matter if no one likes them,'' she says.
Her health has seen better days and she can no longer travel great distances. But, at 88, she is still living life to the full. Her family is a big focus and she relishes time with her children and grandchildren. Fang is the matriarch of one of Hong Kong's most prominent and tight-knit families: 30 members attended the exhibition opening.
She loves watching television and reading newspapers. But when it comes to her art, her unwavering dedication remains. ''I still practise for an hour each day,'' she says. ''I do not paint anymore, I am doing more calligraphy.''
We meet at Fang's luxurious but cosy home on Hong Kong Island, which she named Nanshan Studio, meaning ''southern mountains''. From her window is a great view of Deep Water Bay and, with the lush mountains behind, it is easy to find inspiration even indoors. It is, unmistakably, an artist's dwelling. The house is filled with her paintings and calligraphy works - hanging on walls or folded neatly in stacks in the living room. Scrolls fill the bedrooms and on every visible space are pictures of her family.
''My mother used to paint for eight hours each day,'' says her fourth son, Philip Fang. A retired senior interpreter who worked at the United Nations in Geneva for more than 20 years, he recently returned to Hong Kong to care for his mother and to help curate her exhibitions. ''She is a great inspiration to us because she walked a difficult path,'' he says. ''Our father died when we were very young but this early tragedy did not deter her from pursuing her artistic career, and at the same time filling her role as the mother of eight children. She supported all of us and gave us a good education. She has an indomitable spirit and we are all inspired by her.''
That spirit is revealed in the 120 colourful and dynamic works at the exhibition. ''If you observe Fang Zhaoling's paintings, they don't possess typical female artists' qualities,'' says Judy Chan, curator of art at
the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, which co-organised the exhibition. ''Her strokes are strong and definitive, unlike other female traditional painters, who tend to use lighter strokes. Very likely this has to do with the extreme hardship she experienced in life.''
The painter's creative and family histories make bitter-sweet stories. Born in Wuxi in 1914, her father died when she was 11. Demonstrating a talent at a young age, she began studying traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy with Qian Songyan and Chen Jicun, both accomplished painters. She had a privileged childhood by any standards and, in 1937, she attended university in Manchester, England, where she studied modern Euro-pean history. At the time she was also married to Fang Xingao.
The salad days didn't last long. When World War II broke out, the young family left England and returned to Hong Kong, only to flee shortly afterwards for China when the territory fell to the Japanese. They took refuge in Guilin and Chongqing for 10 years before they moved back to Hong Kong.
When her husband died in 1950, Fang faced more complex challenges. She supported her eight young children by running the family's import-export business while she continued to paint at night. ''I am lucky because I have very good children,'' she says. ''They were very well behaved.''
Philip Fang recalls his early childhood. ''We were very fortunate to have our grandmother and uncle helping to take care of us,'' he says. ''Our mother was never very strict with us, but she set a good example. She is tougher than most men when it comes to persevering through hardship.''
She was also ahead of her time. As the star pupil of the Lingnan-style master Zhao Shaoang, Fang was encouraged to find her own artistic path and to break away from traditional Chinese painting perspectives of imitating the great masters.
To do this, she went back to college and completed a degree at the University of Hong Kong. Then, in 1957, when the children were older, she left them in the care of her relatives to continue her studies at Oxford University. There she met members of different art circles and absorbed various Western influences.
She became an instant hit. By 1958, she had solo shows in Oxford and the following year she exhibited in Boston, New York and San Francisco. The University of Hong Kong awareded her an honorary doctorate in 1996.
''Sometimes we would not see our mother for several months, but we understood art was something she needed to do,'' says her son. ''She wrote us often.''
Like many great painters in her time, Fang believed in jumping out of the circle. ''An artist shouldn't just concentrate on perfecting the technique, finding new inspiration is equally important,'' she says. The decade she spent in London, from 1961 to 1970, proved to be the toughest time in her artistic life. To maintain a minimal living and to continue to finance her children's education, she designed Christmas cards.
As she attempted to break from Chinese traditional principles to find her own style of painting, she was frustrated with herself and often destroyed her own work. Does she regret doing that? ''No,'' she says, adamantly. ''Destroyed everything.''
Fang credits one of China's most prominent painters of the 20th century, Zhang Daqian, as her guiding light. A charismatic and prolific painter who travelled the world in search of new inspiration, Zhang attracted a huge amount of followers wherever he stayed. She met Zhang through one of her former teachers and was accepted as an ''official disciple'', which traditionally required the student to get on her knees and ''kowtow'' to show respect.
In 1970, Fang lived with the master and his family in the picturesque town of Carmel, California. ''He had wild hair and a very long beard,'' she remembers. ''We spoke about paintings and calligraphy very often, and he taught me the principles of 'qiao, zhou, sheng, shu'.'' Essentially meaning ''contrivance, bluntness, freshness and sophistication'', these concepts became the pillars of her creative endeavours.
In return, she made herself useful around the Zhang household and helped cook - no mean feat as Zhang Daqian was known as a fickle gourmet. ''Mother used to tell us that she made wontons for master Zhang,'' says Fang's son. ''He was extremely discerning, and she said that Zhang liked her dumplings. She loved to cook, her signature dishes were braised fish and Lion's Head [a meatball dish stewed with vegetables].''
Visitors to The Majestic Brush will not see obvious influences of these great masters. Rather, they will notice Fang's individual passion and sensitivity. ''She is someone who strives to understand the principles of painting, rather than copying the styles of the masters,'' Chan says. ''Her works are very emotional, they reflect on an artist who reacts to what is happening around her.''
The show charts Fang's career from earlier works, including Plum Blossoms (1959), executed in the traditional style, to her creative peak in the 1980s, when she painted massive works such as Yellow Earth Highland (1986). In the 1990s, Fang took an active interest in human rights and environmental issues and incorporated her thoughts in her painting, almost unheard of in the world of orthodox Chinese painting. Protect Environment Forever For All Living Things (1990) and Vietnamese Boat People (1990) highlighted issues close to Fang's heart.
''It is hard to put into perspective right now how much she will influence the history of Chinese art,'' Chan says. ''But she has no doubt accomplished a great deal. She is utterly devoted to her works, and she is a humanist. There is always a lot of human activity in her works, something that is often downplayed in traditional Chinese paintings.''
This may well be the last time people can view such a range of Fang's collection. She rarely sells her work and there is no official catalogue system, so putting together any exhibition of this scale is extremely difficult. ''To curate her exhibitions is time consuming,'' says her son. ''For this exhibition we had to go through a large volume of her work, and she had to approve every painting and calligraphy personally, she wants every exhibition to show her best.''
Fang has collected several thousand works in her 50 year career. The majority on display are from an exhibition that recently toured Japan and attracted more than 200,000 people. To add a local touch, organisers included pieces that were acquired by the Hong Kong Museum of Art and The Heritage Museum. Of the 120 paintings at the exhibition, 50 works are being shown for the first time in Hong Kong and the rest have been shown recently at the Fuji Art Museum in Japan.
A great loss for the arts circle is that Fang never accepted students. ''My mother has always believed in total concentration, she did not teach because it may have interfered with her own work,'' her son says. None of her family, which includes a lawyer, a senior civil servant and other highly successful business leaders, followed in her footsteps. ''She always told us that an artist's life is hard,'' he says. ''One member doing that is already enough.''
The Majestic Brush - Works By Fang Zhaoling. Until August 12.
Hong Kong Central Library. 66 Causeway Road, Hong Kong.
10am to 8pm.
Tel: 2180 8188