Writer uses humor to bring Western art closer to Chinese
Gu Mengjie is helping to popularize Western painters in China by using humor and anecdotes.
Born in Shanghai, the 32-yearold former graphic designer was first noticed in 2013 for his long posts on European classical paintings on the popular Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo.
Gu’s dissection of works by Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, in particular, has won him 1 million followers.
Gu tells the life stories of famous artists in a way that common people can relate to. At the same time, his writing also draws experts.
His posts on average get read more than 100,000 times.
“I write like I’m chatting with a close friend,” Gu says.
In 2014, he published two books based on his online writings, and sold 500,000 copies in total. It is a rare record for the sluggish market for printed books in China.
Little Gu Talks About Mythology, published in August, is his third book in which he compares Greekmythology to films that are high on violent and sexual content.
“Mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome are major themes for many classical paintings,” Gu says, adding that appreciation of art comes from knowledge.
Gu first studied accounting and then graphic design at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
After graduating in 2009, he worked as a designer for a company in the Australian city for five years.
He wrote horror stories and drew comics online in his spare time but such hobbies didn’t take him far. So he started blogging about art.
“People like him as he talks about art so causally,” says Yang Mo, the editor of Gu’s first book, Little Gu Talks About Painting.
Gu doesn’t use abstract terminology to confuse readers, Yang says.
Examples of Gu’s humor are: “Vincent van Gogh’s life was as bitter as Chinese traditional medicine and as hard as diamond.
“Pierre-Auguste Renoir was obsessed with drawing women’s breasts and Paul Cezanne liked to paint apples.”
Gu has also advertised products like drinks, jewelry, exhibitions, household appliances and so on, linking them to art through fun stories.
In an advertisement he wrote for the personal finance predictions service of Alibaba Group in December 2014, Gu said Van Gogh’s talent wasn’t fully recognized when he was alive, and went on to make the joke that had the Dutch painter taken the help of the Chinese company he might not have killed himself. The service would have predicted the later commercial success of his works.
“Van Gogh’s tragic story could have been rewritten if he had known that he would get rich 10 years after his death,” the advertisement said.
Gu himself faces a lot of criticism for his writing on European art.
“Some people say I don’t respect art, but do we really need to place art on an altar?,” asks Gu. “Today, if we can discuss and judge a film, why can’t we discuss and judge a painting from hundreds of years ago?”
Then, delving into the issue of what constitutes “authoritative sources” in art history, he says, “As the materials were recorded and edited by people, human bias was likely.… It is difficult for people to prove the authenticity of materials as nobody today has experienced the past era after all.”
But Gu also acknowledges the need to write precisely. He says he will publicly apologize for any errors he makes.
“That’s why I hired a team of masters and PhDs in art history to help me double-check what I write,” says Gu.
In October, the online TV program directed and presented by Gu, Travel Around Italy with Mr Gu, was released on Iqiyi, a popular streaming site of tech company Baidu.
“I’ve seen many tourists take photos of artworks in European cities without knowing the stories behind them or without much appreciation for them,” Gu says, adding that he aims to change that.
He says if he had the chance to produce another season of the online TV program, he would explore France.
Gu Mengjie starts his writing career with an online micro blog. The author has now published three books on Western paintings and art.
Gu Mengjie’s latest book is about Greek mythology.