Pain­ter hon­ored to re­store bat­tle mu­ral

Chi­nese artist re­turns home to work on panorama he helped cre­ate de­pict­ing 1937 in­ci­dent that sparked war with Ja­pan, re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS -

For 65-year-old Chi­nese artist Mao Wen­biao, re­turn­ing to his home­land to re­store a mu­ral he and other artists com­pleted 28 years ago is both an honor and a re­spon­si­bil­ity. The panorama, en­ti­tled The Bat­tle of Lu­gou Bridge, tells the story of a key bat­tle in the War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1937-45).

Orig­i­nally painted as China’s ear­li­est 180-de­gree panorama by Mao and five fel­low artists, the 800-me­ter-long can­vas was re­stored over two months just in time for the cel­e­bra­tion of the 70th an­niver­sary of vic­tory in World War II, and it al­ready has been seen by half a mil­lion visi­tors at the Bei­jing Na­tional Mu­seum of Art.

“I was so ex­cited to work on the restora­tion. I said the mu­ral is a work I par­tic­i­pated in cre­at­ing, so now I need to work on it to make it bet­ter. I am also hon­ored to do this for my coun­try,” said Mao.

Mao was speak­ing at the Os­borne Stu­dio Gallery, an el­e­gant art gallery in Lon­don’s Knights­bridge dis­trict, which has a large col­lec­tion of Mao’s paint­ings. The peace­ful­ness and taste shown in the gallery seems to re­flect Mao’s state of mind in the UK, char­ac­ter­ized by sta­bil­ity and com­fort but also live­li­ness.

His event­ful life has taken him from be­ing a young navy of­fi­cer in China to one of the coun­try’s most fa­mous mil­i­tary pain­ters, then later achiev­ing fame in the UK, where he now lives and paints. His per­son­al­ity ra­di­ates an at­mos­phere of wis­dom and quiet con­fi­dence.

Al­ready rec­og­nized as one of China’s fore­most mil­i­tary pain­ters of the ’70s and ’80s, Mao’s life took a sharp turn in 1989 when he trav­eled to the United King­dom to study for his master’s de­gree in fine art at the Royal Academy of Art, which opened his eyes to the roots and history of Western art and “inspired the cre­ativ­ity” in­side him, he said.

In 1992, Mao’s works dis­played at his grad­u­a­tion show were rec­og­nized by Bri­tish art gallery owner Christo­pher Hull, who de­cided to sell Mao’s art in his gallery, also in Knights­bridge, next door to the Os­borne Stu­dio Gallery.

This work­ing part­ner­ship con­vinced Mao to stay in the UK for good, and when Hull re­tired, Mao started to work with the Os­borne Stu­dio Gallery.

Mao speaks with energy and ex­cite­ment about his cre­ative process, but in men­tion­ing his achieve­ments he is ex­tremely mod­est.

“I am lucky that my art sells, and that I can make a liv­ing from it. Not many artists can do this nowa­days,” he said.

Af­ter com­ing to the UK, he has never looked back. He said he en­joys the calm life in the UK, and is thank­ful that he has many buy­ers who love and ap­pre­ci­ate his art.

Re­turn­ing to China to take part in a big pro­ject again is a big event in Mao’s life. Out of the group of artists who orig­i­nally com­pleted The Bat­tle of Lu­gou Bridge be­tween 1985 and 1987, some have died, while some are not fit enough to par­tic­i­pate in the restora­tion. Only Mao and a col­league, 71-year-old New York res­i­dent Yang Ke­shan, were able to par­tic­i­pate.

It was a tough job since the paint­ing was heav­ily cov­ered in dust and had be­come dis­col­ored over the years. Mao and Yang had to paint for long hours ev­ery day with the as­sis­tance of a large team of younger artists, stand­ing on a large crane that lifted them up to paint the higher parts of the mu­ral.

“When I ini­tially re­turned and saw the paint­ing, I felt so sad. It was so run-down and dif­fer­ent from what I orig­i­nally re­mem­bered it to be. The sur­face had gath­ered a lot of dust, and the col­ors no longer showed much con­trast. I felt a great duty to make it bet­ter,” Mao said.

Be­ing the per­fec­tion­ist he is, Mao trav­eled three times from the UK to China dur­ing the pro­ject’s span to bring the best paint to use on the mu­ral. “I feel I must make it a paint­ing that will last a cen­tury.”

Lu­gou Bridge, also known as Marco Polo Bridge, was the site of a bat­tle be­tween the Re­pub­lic of China’s Na­tional Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Army and the Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Army in 1937, of­ten used as the marker for the start of the War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion.

The pic­ture fea­tures hun­dreds of sol­diers fight­ing, and Mao and his col­leagues have taken great care to de­pict the courage and brav­ery of the Chi­nese sol­diers, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to their body lan­guage and fa­cial ex­pres­sion.

Some of the Chi­nese sol­diers stand tall, hold­ing their weapons high in their hands, and some are quickly run­ning to­ward their en­emy.

Their faces are lit up with hope and de­ter­mi­na­tion, and some have their mouths open as if they are shout­ing en­cour­ag­ing mes­sages to them­selves and their fel­low sol­diers.

These body lan­guage and fa­cial ex­pres­sions are in stark con­trast to the Ja­panese sol­diers, whose fa­cial ex­pres­sions are blander. Many of them are ly­ing on the ground dead, and some are lean­ing back­ward in a de­fen­sive pos­ture.

But it is clear from the paint­ing that the Ja­panese sol­diers are equipped with more ad­vanced weapons and crisper mil­i­tary uni­forms.

They had mod­ern guns, com­pared with the Chi­nese sol­diers’ out­moded weapons, in­clud­ing long swords, and the Ja­panese sol­diers’ cloth­ing is newer, while the Chi­nese sol­diers’ uni­forms are old and torn in many places.

“We wanted to de­pict the Chi­nese sol­diers’ brave spirit. They are not afraid of death or in­jury at all,” Mao said.

The fight­ing is set against a ru­ral vil­lage, with a peace­ful land­scape and farm­ers’ cot­tages be­ing shown in both the fore­ground and back­ground of the paint­ing, in con­trast to the cru­elty of war, which sud­denly in­vaded the calm­ness of ru­ral life.

Mao, who was born and grew up in Shang­hai, joined the Chi­nese navy in 1968 ini­tially as a navy of­fi­cer who also spent part of his time paint­ing dur­ing sea voy­ages. His tal­ent and hard work gained him recog­ni­tion, and in the early ’70s he was sent to Bei­jing to paint for the cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

Dur­ing his time in Bei­jing he said he learned many great lessons about paint­ing from Chi­nese mil­i­tary pain­ter He Kongde, who was the lead artist on the Bat­tle of Lu­gou Bridge pro­ject.

Af­ter the pro­ject, Mao de­cided that he would study art in the UK.

“Com­ing to the Royal Academy of Art has com­pletely trans­formed me as an artist, be­cause I was en­cour­aged to think freely and out­side the box, and that has brought out the most cre­ative side of me,” Mao said.



grad­u­a­tion show, Mao dis­played a few pic­tures of Lon­don life, show­ing white-col­lar work­ers with suits, ties and brief­cases, but do­ing it with great vari­a­tion to de­pict ev­ery sin­gle per­son as unique and in­ter­est­ing.

He said that he chose the sub­ject be­cause he loved ob­serv­ing Lon­don dur­ing his time as an art stu­dent in the city, and he wanted to share with his view­ers his dis­cov­ery of the charms of the city.

Such works mark the be­gin­ning of a new artis­tic style for Mao, in which he shows ev­ery­day peo­ple and ob­jects, but adds great de­tail and a touch of hu­mor. Such de­tails might in­clude an in­di­vid­ual’s pos­ture, or an um­brella, which makes his paint­ings in­trigu­ing and amus­ing.

The style can be seen in more-re­cent work de­pict­ing flow­ers and other facets of na­ture, and sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties like horse rac­ing and cy­cling. His skills in cre­at­ing ex­ag­ger­ated but be­liev­able pos­tures in these fast-paced sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties have also made him well-known as an artist ex­celling in de­pict­ing speed and rhythm.

Along­side his paint­ings, Mao has also worked on sev­eral spec­tac­u­lar mu­rals in Lon­don set­tings, one of them is in The Ritz Ho­tel in cen­tral Lon­don’s Green Park.

The mu­ral is painted on the walls sur­round­ing a ro­tat­ing stair­case that runs up the Wil­liam Kent wing of The Ritz. These vast pan­els have been painted in tremen­dous de­tail and are peo­pled with 18th cen­tury char­ac­ters, to fit along­side the rest of the in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion.

Re­flect­ing on his past work, Mao said he feels thank­ful that study­ing and liv­ing in the UK has al­lowed him to find a unique artis­tic style that works for him.

“The best de­pic­tion of a sub­ject mat­ter or event from life is not to copy it as it is, but to use ab­stract artis­tic tech­niques to high­light the at­mos­phere as­so­ci­ated with the sub­ject mat­ter or event, so the viewer in the end un­der­stands the emo­tions linked to what the artist wants to de­pict,” Mao said.

“I like de­pict­ing move­ment per­haps be­cause I am a very out­go­ing per­son. I also like paint­ing small, ev­ery­day ac­tions and ob­jects that are true to life, but in the process add a touch of char­ac­ter and hu­mor,” he said.

Con­tact the writer at ce­cily.liu@chi­


Top: Mao Wen­biao works on the restora­tion of Bat­tle­ofLu­gouBridge in 2015. Above left: Bat­tle­ofLu­gouBridge mu­ral af­ter the restora­tion. Above right: Mu­ral in­side The Ritz Ho­tel, Lon­don.

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