IN 1912, a 17-year-old man with 3,000 yuan that he borrowed from friends established the Shanghai Art School, the first art school in China and one that changed the history of Chinese modern art in the past century.
The young man was Liu Haisu (1896-1994), one of the greats in Chinese art history, who used his combination of Chinese and European techniques to revolutionize art education in China.
The Shanghai Art School, now the Nanjing Art Academy in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, celebrates its 100th anniversary with an exhibition titled "Endless Variation," featuring around 150 canvases and ink-wash created by teachers and students from the school. Historical materials from the school and videos are also exhibited at the China Art Museum through December 9.
"The art school coincided with the start of China's Republican Period (1912-1949), when the shackles of feudalism were being broken, and also with the opening for various new concepts and ideas from the West," says Zhang Jian, the director at the Liu Haisu Art Museum, one of the organizers of the exhibition. "The Republic of China plus the city of Shanghai undoubtedly attracted unlimited imagination."
When the school opened, Liu himself had only briefly studied basic drawing and painting in charcoal and water colors, but he boldly published an advertisement for his new school in newspapers. At the time, he probably was unaware of how much his effort would revolutionize art and art education.
But the school's classes soon became magnets for many young art lovers who would go on to make history as illustrious painters. Students included Chen Shifa (1921-2007), Pan Yuliang (1895-1977), Li Keran (1907-1989) and many others.
Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), democratic revolutionary, educator and president of Tsinghua University in Beijing, supported Liu and his school generously through his wide social connections and resources. He helped establish the school's board of directors and became its first chairman.
Soon the school found financial assistance from major enterprises and attracted many noted intellectuals as lecturers, including Fu Lei (1908-1966), China's top translator, and Hu Shi (1891-1962), the leader of China's New Culture Movement.
"The importance of this exhibition is not in looking back, but rather looking forward," says Shi Dawei, the chairman of the Shanghai Artists' Association. "The vitality and creativity that prevailed in the school set a good example for us."
Entering the exhibition hall on the second floor of the China Art Museum, visitors see a cluster of canvases depicting city scenes and portraits. The subject matter and techniques were similar to those in the Western art world, while remaining essentially Chinese.
The Shanghai Art School created a sensation when Liu Haisu and other artists held an exhibition of nudes and later used nude female models in class, creating an uproar and general outrage in a conservative society. In 1925 the government forbade the use of nude models in class and public exhibition of works featuring nudes.
A black-and-white photo at the current exhibition captures a sketching class with a nude model. Teachers and students are smiling and clustering around the model who is clearly visible - but her face is turned away to avoid recognition.
The nude model controversy didn't hinder Liu's career or create problems for his art school. He fought the government, which finally approved the class.
Another highlight of the exhibition is the furniture designed by Zhang Guangyu (1900-1965), one of the pioneers in Chinese decorative arts. The modern shapes and lines of the furniture date from around 1934 and the Art Deco movement.
In 1952, the Shanghai Art School moved to Nanjing, and was renamed the Nanjing Art Academy.