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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.