On March 30, 2021, the seventh lecture “Situational Practice and Image Archaeology” at the Shixiang Lecture Hall was held. In this lecture, Professor Cao Qinghui from the Department of Art History, School of Humanities at Central Academy of Fine Arts, took Xu Beihong’s “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’” (1939) as a case study to explore the people, matters and things that were submerged in history based on the creation process of this work as well as the related archives.
Lecture View of “Situational Practice and Image Archaeology”
The lecture was given by Professor Cao Qinghui, Doctorial Supervisor of the Department of Art History, School of Humanities at CAFA.
“Situational Practice and Image Archaeology” was proposed by Professor Cao Qinghui as a research path, which intends to not understand works in isolation and aesthetically alone; instead, it requires the interpretation of works from a historic viewpoint and in a broader sense. Understanding the meaning of a piece of work cannot be separated from the investigation and analysis of the artist and his or her life experience. When the work is completed, the complicated dissemination process would bring the work into a new context again and again. The meaning and image in the work are constantly evolving under the influence of various complicated factors and the so-called “primary meaning” has also transformed during this process.
“Situational Practice and Image Archaeology” expects an approach to the origins of a creation and the dissemination context of the work through collecting, verifying and analyzing a large number of images and archival materials, in order to step closer to the primary meaning of the image. In this lecture, it is precisely through this method that there is a guide for audiences to re-understand the meaning and value of the work “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’ ”.
Origin of Creation: The Collaboration to Raise Relief and Save the Country
The first question regarding the work “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’” created in 1939 by Xu Beihong should be, what is the relationship between this work and the famous play “Lay Down Your Whip”? Did Xu Beihong and Wang Ying know each other through this play, did the artist paint the actresses in the play?
In order to approach the truth, we need to temporarily get rid of the existing identification and evaluation, combining the historical background and the real-life experiences of Wang Ying to reanalyze the true reasons for creating this painting.
When the July 7th Incident broke out in 1937, the famous movie stars Wang Ying and Jin Shan accepted instructions to perform publicity in the country as secret party members. Under the instructions of Zhou Enlai who later become the Premier of People’s Republic of China, they accepted the invitation and funding from Li Zongren and Bai Chongxi, leaders of Guangxi Clique of the Kuomintang, to form the “China National Salvation Troupe” and went to the South Sea Islands to perform and promote anti-Japanese thoughts and fund-raising for overseas Chinese. However, due to the lack of legal identity to carry out propaganda performances, the “China National Salvation Troupe” was developed into the “New China Drama Troupe” for fund-raising and helping wounded soldiers and refugees in the motherland, with the help of Tan Kah Kee, Chairman of the South Sea Islands Overseas Chinese Relief Association, under the disguise of helping women and children suffered from the bombardment by fascists in London, UK. From June to December 1940, under the leadership of Jin Shan and Wang Ying, the “New China Drama Troupe” put on 27 times and 80 scenes of relief performances within six months. They used drama to propagate the War of Resistance against Japan, including the widely welcomed one-act play “Lay Down Your Whip”. The troupe used its work as a fund-raising tool, and was warmly welcomed by overseas Chinese from all over the world. It was praised by the South Sea Islands media as the “representative of the emerging art of New China, and the invincible army of drama sensationalized at home and abroad.”
The Group Photo of “China National Salvation Troupe”
The one standing on the far left of the group photo is the leader Jin Shan (marked 1 on the trouser legs), and the lady in the squatting position in the front row is the deputy leader Wang Ying (marked 2 on the skirt’s hem).
Unlike Wang Ying with a clear and strong mission, Xu Beihong did not accept any assignment or appointment, so why did he come to South Sea Islands and create this painting? Through the research of Xu Beihong’s letters and related archives, Cao Qinghui holds the view that Xu came to South Sea Islands as “both destruction of a nation and family”. On the one hand, “national destruction” refers to the turmoil in the country from Japan’s invasion of China. Xu Beihong also had the intention of selling paintings to raise funds to help the country. On the other hand, Xu Beihong had problems with his personal emotions and family at the time, and he was on the verge of separation from his wife Jiang Biwei, while he was not able to be with the student Sun Duoci as he wanted. At this time, the famous Indian poet Tagore continued to send him invitations. Therefore, under the influence of several factors, he decided to sell paintings for both personal travel and national salvation. He arrived in Singapore in 1939 and planned to go to India and other places.
Xu Beihong, Huang Menggui, Huang Manshi’s granddaughter and Huang Manshi (from left to right) took a group photo at Jiangxiatang in 1939.
During his stay in Singapore, Xu Beihong made many local friends, such as Yu Dafu. Judging from the available information, Yu Dafu was familiar with Wang Ying, and Cao Qinghui believes that Xu Beihong should have met Wang Ying through Yu Dafu, and a cooperation for Wang Ying’s portrait was formed. “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’” was drawn according to Wang Ying, but it was not a gift to her, but for public sale and fund-raising. It can be seen that this painting has become a way of cooperation so that the star Wang Ying who raised funds through performances and the painter Xu Beihong who donated money by selling paintings worked together for national salvation.
The Method of Creation: A Combination of Realism and Romanticism
Since it was a cooperation to save the country, it seems reasonable to choose a role in the revolutionary drama “Lay Down Your Whip” to represent Wang Ying. However, from Cao Qinghui’s further research, it can be found that Xu Beihong has never seen Wang Ying perform this play. The painting “Mrs. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’” was completed in October 1939. Although Wang Ying first arrived in Singapore in September 1939, her official performance with the team began in June 1940. Therefore, before creating this painting, Xu Beihong had not actually seen Wang Ying perform the play “Lay Down Your Whip” with his own eyes.
As Xu Beihong had not seen the performance of the play in person, why did he choose the image of “Lay Down Your Whip” to represent Wang Ying when the play did not have a mass basis in Singapore at that time? This is most likely Wang Ying’s choice. As far as the clothing itself is concerned, this outfit was a complete set of upper garment and trousers, which was more appropriate and more in line with the weather at the time of creation. In terms of the play itself, although “Lay Down Your Whip” was never performed in Singapore at the time, before that, it had been widely appreciated by domestic audiences as a short play that encouraged anti-Japanese support and propagated salvation in China.
Xu Beihong, “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’”, Oil on Canvas, 144cm×90cm, 1939
Private Collection of Taiwanese Collector, Exhibited at the National Gallery Singapore
Even though Xu Beihong had already known the plot of this play, it was far from the experience of watching it on the spot. It can be seen that, apart from Wang Ying and her movements, the background streets and crowds in the paintings actually relied on Xu Beihong’s associations.
Besides the background of the picture, Xu Beihong also made a secret and significant change to Wang Ying’s costume, and made a very iconographic adaptation of the pattern. From the currently public photo of Wang Ying, it can be seen that there were two sets of her costumes of Xiangjie. In addition to the common costumes worn by her in the group photo with Xu Beihong in Jiangxiatang in October 1939, there was also one seen in the photo during Wang Ying’s performance of “Lay Down Your Whip” in the autumn of 1941 in Hong Kong.
If we look carefully, we can find that the patterns of Wang Ying’s costumes in Xu Beihong’s painting were different from those of the two sets of costumes. By searching for traditional Chinese folk patterns, the patterns on the painting were similar to the “Phoenix Wearing a Peony Pattern” in southern batik. This auspicious and wealthy pattern shows us from an iconographic sense that when creating this work, Xu Beihong paid more attention to expressing Wang Ying’s identity as a queen of drama and unparalleled beauty, rather than the character Xiangjie from the bottom of society in the play “Lay Down Your Whip”, or a certain plot of the drama itself.
Xu Beihong took a photo with Wang Ying with makeup on while drawing “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’” in Jiangxiatang in October 1939.
After Wang Ying (first from left) and Jin Shan (third from left) performed “Lay Down Your Whip” in the Hong Kong Lee Theatre, they took a photo with cartoonist Ding Cong (second from left) and Ma Guoliang, editor-in-chief of “The Earth” with makeup on in autumn of 1941.
“Phoenix Wearing a Peony Pattern” in Blue Calico
Setting off with an imaginary background and adding symbolic patterns are common techniques in romantic paintings. So far, Cao Qinghui discovered that in this painting, Xu Beihong was different from the existing impression as a realist painter from people’s view. Through this painting, he revealed a combination of realism and romanticism. As Cao Qinghui said, perhaps only by breaking through the given concepts of the painter and his or her creation, and understanding the causes and consequences behind each painting, can we discover the changes of the images and its meanings hidden in the paintings.
Impact and Assessment: Compared to “Throw The Whip” by Situ Qiao
The “Phoenix Wearing Peony Pattern” expresses Xu Beihong’s recognition of Wang Ying as an actor and star. However, in his praise of the inscribed “heroine that everyone admires”, we seem to perceive that Xu Beihong had changed his cognition towards Wang Ying. In fact, after the portrait was completed at that time, Tan Kah Kee and other leaders of overseas Chinese were invited to Jiangxiatang to participate in the celebration banquet, and Yu Dafu inscribed a poem of Yang Weizhen from Yuan Dynasty, while Huang Manshi, Huang Menggui, among others, also addressed poems to congratulate them. These verses and inscriptions described the difficult journey of Wang Ying and her colleagues in their work, and they praise Wang Ying as a “heroine”, “chivalrous female”, and an “observant and conscientious person” in their poems.
This allowed Xu Beihong to see the other side of Wang Ying’s involvement in the national salvation movement as a secret party member, which was completely different from the women he had contact with previously—Jiang Biwei had repeatedly dissuaded him from the fierce political struggle, and although his favorite female student was the same age as Wang Ying, she was not yet independent and still relied on the support of her parents. But at the time the painting was completed, perhaps Xu Beihong expressed this new feeling through the inscription, namely, “The heroine Wang Ying admired by everyone, written by Beihong on October 28, Sin Chew (Singapore)”. It recorded Xu Beihong’s feelings about the change in his understanding of Wang Ying as an “unparalleled beauty” to “heroine”, and reflected the emotional change from praising Wang Ying’s acting career to his appreciation that Wang Ying had devoted herself to the cause of saving the country, which has advanced the meaning of the whole picture one step further.
“Recent Works by Xu Beihong”, published on The 150th issue of The Young Companion, 1940
The 150th issue of The Young Companion launched the topic of “Wartime Art Exhibits”, 1940
In the 150th issue of The Young Companion in 1940, a topic featuring wartime paintings was planned and edited, and “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’” and Wang Ying’s head portrait were within this topic. In the picture logic of life in the War of Resistance against Japan and the image logic of the works formed under the topic, coupled with the introduction and editing of overseas performances and the celebrity status, the connotation of this work in terms of “star patriotism” and “women’s salvation” has been further specific and emphasized. Therefore, when reviewing history from the perspective of literary women and artistic women in the war of resistance and salvation, Cao Qinghui believes that the early and influential artwork that entered our field of vision was this piece of work created by Xu Beihong.
Due to the similarity of themes and characters, Xu Beihong’s “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’” is often compared with Situ Qiao’s “Throw the Whip”, and there is no shortage of comments that praise the latter and criticize the former. On November 5, 1945, two months after the victory of the War of Resistance Against Japan, Shen Yan, the art director of the original “New China Drama Troupe”, who specifically assisted Situ Qiao in completing the composition and setting of “Throw the Whip”, published an article in the “Chongqing Xinmin Evening News”. In this article, while agreeing with Situ Qiao’s expression of the essence of “Lay Down Your Whip” play, at the same time, Shen Yan severely criticize Xu Beihong’s work for breaking away from the play.
Situ Qiao, “Throw the Whip”, 1940, Oil on Linen Cloth, 124×177cm
Collection of National Art Museum of China
Through Cao Qinghui’s contextual restoration of Xu Beihong’s “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’” and image analysis, it is not difficult to find that Situ Qiao’s “Throwing the Whip” and Xu Beihong’s “Ms. Wang Ying in ‘Lay Down Your Whip’ ” have their own creative backgrounds and logic. Situ Qiao’s conception and creation were deeply involved in the study of plots and roles, visually close to a very dramatic still, while Xu Beihong paid more attention to expressing Wang Ying’s identity as an actress when creating. In fact, whether it is Situ Qiao’s restoration of the play’s plot to arouse people’s association with the play itself and triggered people’s patriotic feelings in the War of Resistance against Japan, or Xu Beihong’s emphasis on the female celebrity participating in national salvation activities under the influence of multiple factors such as pictures, inscriptions, and publications, they both presented a positive influence and effect on the propaganda of the war of resistance and national salvation at that time.
View of the Lecture
Professor Cao Qinghui was communicating with an audience.
It was also difficult for Shen Yan who lived in that era to clearly understand the context and original meaning of Xu Beihong’s creation. During this period, it would be more distant from the context for decades. When we look at this piece of work with a historical experience, viewing Xu Beihong’s creation from the perspective of complete realism and judge the content by name, we would unconsciously deviate from its original meaning. If we want to understand and evaluate artworks more deeply, we sometimes need to enter the historical context behind the work and explore its causes, consequences, and dissemination process. By doing so, the content and meaning of the images can be understood in a broader sense and more comprehensively.
Text by Wang Yuying
Executively edited by Mengxi (CN)
Translated by Emily Weimeng Zhou and edited by Sue (EN)
Image courtesy of the organizer.