Wu Biduan is holding his first retrospective exhibition at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where the 90-year-old taught for several decades until his retirement in 1988.
A noted lithography artist, Wu produced many iconic works, including a portrait of New China's founding father Mao Zedong, in which he incorporated the style of traditional Chinese New Year paintings; a portrait of Zhou Enlai that resonated with the public after the premier's death in 1976; and Sunflower Field, in which Wu talks of social transformation after the reform and opening-up.
The ongoing exhibition, titled Incised Traces, celebrates the artist's versatility in sketches, illustrations, comic strips, watercolors and ink paintings. His artistic career spanning seven decades is typical of a lot of artists of his generation, who devoted their time to portraying common people's lives.
Wu's first association with art can be traced back to his student days at the Yucai Middle School, founded by the famed educator Tao Xingzhi in Chongqing in 1939. It took in many refugee children like Wu, who escaped from their hometowns during the Japanese invasion.
Wu joined a painting group in school, in which he studied sketching, drawing and coloring, and was introduced to Western art. He created his first published work at age 15, a woodcut titled Bloody Accusation that appeared on Xinhua Daily, the first newspaper published by the Communist Party of China.
The woodcut reproduced a tragic scene of children killed in Japanese bombings of Chongqing in 1938. People's agonies back then led Wu to create more such artwork throughout his career.
A graduate of the erstwhile Northeast Associated University, Wu went for advanced studies to the Ilya Repin State Academic Institute of Fine Arts, Sculpture and Architecture in St. Petersburg from 1956 to 1959.
Fan Di'an, head of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, says Wu took on a realistic style that is visible in his lithographs of both Chinese leaders and ordinary people, such as farmers, factory workers and soldiers.
The current exhibition shows Wu's caricatures in the 1940s criticizing oppressors and watercolor works of Chinese soldiers he created on the front line of the Korean War, as well as the prints and illustrations for a Chinese version of The Iron Flood, a novel by the late Soviet writer Alexander Serafimovich.
"I'm satisfied with my paintings of Zhou Enlai, not only because I was then (in the 1970s) technically mature, but also my heart was filled with reverence and affection for him," Wu says.
The show includes his colored ink paintings that reflect Wu's major breakthrough since the '70s, exhibition curator Guo Hongmei says.
Among the works is Li Zicheng Marching to Beijing, a collaboration with another painter Lu Hongnian in 1973. The 4-meter-long painting depicts the rebel leader, whose armies overthrew the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), being greeted by his supporters in the streets. It is now a collection of the National Museum of China in Beijing.
Wu's many ink works were inspired by his extensive travels across the country. His landscapes of the Three Gorges along the Yangtze River, which he visited in the '70s, reflect the changes in the area over the years.
"I was overwhelmed by their vigor and magnificence. I didn't feel constrained by anything. There was only nature and me, and I drew it with all the skills and emotions I had," Wu recalls.
Gao Rongsheng, a former student, says Wu keeps a low profile although boasting great accomplishments, and the retrospective will tell the youth that working hard is how an artist can carve out a niche.
Wu says: "A real artist should contribute to the age he lives in, and owes a sense of responsibility to society, especially to the young students of art."