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New exhibition paints portrait of artist Ha Ding and his times
2015-06-15
By Tong Wangyue

A new exhibition at the Shanghai Oil-painting and Sculpture Institute Art Museum seeks to shed new light on the life and work of Chinese artist Ha Ding (1923-2003) through paintings, letters, documents, personal belongings, newspaper clippings and historical artifacts.

“Through thoughtfully arranged documents, related historical materials and even the artists’ personal belongings, people can get a complete overview of the artists’ life, his style and inspirations,” said Fu Jun, an organizer of the show as well as the museum’s deputy director. “Crucially, these objects also reveal the cultural spirit of a pervious age.”

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Ha made a name for himself in China’s art world with his skillful watercolor paintings. He was also a forceful advocate of art education and an active proponent of art as a vehicle for positive social change.

Ha was born in Shanghai into an artistic family. His grandfather, Ha Shaopu, was a master painter and a well-known antique collector. The elder Ha was also the second director of the Xiling Seal Club, an association dedicated to stone seal engravings. Ha studied traditional Chinese painting with his grandfather and later became a student of Zhang Chongren, another famed Shanghai artist.

In 1950, when would-be artists had few opportunities to develop their skills in China, Ha provided art lessons to amateurs in Shanghai while also running his own portrait studio.

He later wrote two influential books, “How to Draw a Portrait” and “How to Draw with Pencil,” which helped fill fundamental gaps in local arts education.

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According to Fu, it can be difficult to learn much about an artist’s personal life merely by looking at their work. One can discover a great deal about an artist by learning about the age in which they lived, said Fu, who added that art often reflects the spirit of the times.

The current exhibition is intended to bridge the gap between modern viewers and Ha by placing the artist into his cultural and historic contexts.

Indeed, Ha’s life and artistic career mirrors many aspects of the development of modern art in China, explained Ha.

In 1942, Chairman Mao Zedong gave a talk at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art where he said: “The social life of the human being is the only source of literature and art.”

This remark shaped the way artists of that time in China viewed the relationship between their work and the world around them.

Ha was among those who took the Great Helmsman’s words to heart. Like many of his contemporaries, he looked for artistic inspiration in China’s factories, villages, farms, borderlands and minority areas. During his extensive travels, he collected local stories and spent much of his time sketching and painting.

Many of the works produced by Ha during this time feature farmers, shepherds, playing children and vivid scenes of ordinary life. Several such works are on display with supporting documents and artifacts at the current exhibition.

Throughout his career, Ha continued to make strides in improving his technique, producing increasingly smoother and more detailed images. The strength of these paintings provided crucial visual cues which would be taken up by other artists.

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And according to Fu, Ha was among a small group of Chinese artists who pursued their creative dreams through persistent efforts.

“No matter how hard life was at that time, they held an optimistic and positive attitude toward life and art,” she said.

On the museum’s second floor, visitors can see a recreation of Ha’s studio. On an easel hangs a draft sketch of Buddhist Master Hongyi, Ha’s last unfinished work. Aside from such materials, the exhibition features nearly 50 of Ha’s watercolor and oil-painting works.

To offer further insight into the life and work of Ha, the museum has invited art experts as well as Ha’s daughter to present a series of public events this weekend. The exhibition runs through June 21.

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