Sylvia Vetta says Fang Zhaoling’s collection of paintings are a delight

Outside of China, the Ashmolean can boast the finest collection of contemporary Chinese painting from 1950: recently enhanced by the Michael Sullivan bequest. Until February 22, walk past Ju Ming’s impressive sculpture of him and enter the gallery named after Michael and his wife Khoan to discover the delightful Fang Zhaoling centenary exhibition.

The senior curator of Chinese art, Shelagh Vainker, and Yi Chen, the Christensen Fellow of Chinese painting, have mounted this exhibition mostly from work on loan from the artist’s family.

Yi Chen said: “Fang painted until she was 90 years old and relates to so many major figures from Chinese ink painting. In this exhibition you can see the significance of the qualities she absorbed from them, from changing times and from her travels.”

The artist said that the landscape in her mind was always the landscape of China. Standing in front of After Visiting the Lake District you will understand that. The scene was inspired by a trip to the Lake District but her brush depicted rural life in China. I enjoyed Stonehenge which was painted with powerful calligraphic strokes and with her signature square red sun. It is appropriately hung near Guilin Landscape. Fang and her family took refuge in Guilin in south-eastern China during the Japanese occupation, and the landscape made a lifelong impression on her. Later the Yosemite National Park in California and Guilin became linked in her visual imagination. Fang Zhaoling was the elder of two daughters of an affluent industrialist, who was assassinated in 1925 amidst social and political upheaval in China.

Unusually for the time, her mother provided a liberal education for her daughters. Fang started to study Chinese painting and calligraphy at the age of 13, later going on to an art college in Wuxi. In 1937 she was accepted by Manchester University where she married fellow student Fang Sinkao a year later, returning with him to China at the outbreak of the Second World War.

She never forgot her time in poverty as a refugee during the Second World War. Vietnamese boat people arrived in large numbers in Hong Kong where she was living in the 1970s. The number who attempted to flee Vietnam after the war has been put as high as 1.5 million, many travelling in makeshift boats. Fang was moved to paint their plight.

The figures in Under the Scorching Sun are intentionally naïve, influenced by Han Dynasty tomb figures. Shelagh said “Fang was one of China’s foremost modern artists whose long career and remarkable life was set against the backdrop of the turbulence of 20th-century China. But she also has strong connections with England and particularly with Oxford where she was a student from 1956-58.”

Mount Hua was a gift from her to her Oxford tutor Professor David Hawkes and is on loan from his collection. He described it as strong and beautiful, and he could look at it “for an hour without noticing the time pass and end up feeling calm and rested”.

Yi Chen’s favourite is Method from no Method, a mysterious impressionistic landscape. The artist experimented with different styles including abstraction. Her vivid still life paintings make you feel hungry. The mood is reflected in the title of Everything is Going Well.

My first encounter with a Chinese artist in Oxford was the book Silent Traveller in Oxford by Chiang Yi (1944). The Stars art movement founder Qu Lei Lei’s Everyone’s Life is an Epic exhibition was mounted in the Ashmolean and he was commissioned to make a portrait of Michael Sullivan. Yi Chen’s predecessor at the Ashmolean was artist Weimin He whose work as artist in residence is on display on the hoardings in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. And until mid-December you can see the work of dissident artist Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace.

The artistic ties between China and Oxford grow ever stronger and the influences of both at the end of an artist’s brush, like that of Fang Zhaoling, make a pleasurable connection.

Fang Zhaoling: A Centenary Exhibition
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Until February 22