Still, Life Opened by Prof. Mabel Lee

“The Chinese title of Fu Hong’s exhibition means something like “flourishing in the sun,” but Dr Zuo Yeqin has playfully given it the English title: “Still, Life.”

The comma separating the words “Still” and “Life” emphasizes that life continues.” – Prof. Mabel Lee

The Chinese title of Fu Hong’s exhibition means something like “flourishing in the sun,” but Dr Zuo Yeqin has playfully given it the English title: “Still, Life.” Most of the exhibits are in fact “still-life” depictions. The comma separating the words “Still” and “Life” emphasizes that life continues, i.e., there is growth and revitalization as we emerge from the Covid lockdowns. Fu Hong’s paintings here were created during 2020, 2021, and 2022.

This exhibition celebrating the 60th year of Fu Hong’s art practice includes samples of his other areas of painting specialization: the adult female nude body and the adult portrait that focuses on the face.

Fu Hong has a photographic memory and while painting, his eyes act like a camera, while his mind makes intellectual interpretations and aesthetic judgements that endow his works with layers of rich textures. The focus of this exhibition are his 16 still-life paintings of identifiable and identified flowers. Some of these works are variations of his basic composition of a vase of flowers in a room-setting often with curtains and drapes. Fu Hong’s brushwork endows perspective, and depth, and multiple dimensions to his still-life flowers. In recent years it seems that the brilliant Australian sunlight has enticed him to focus completely on the flowers themselves as we see here in the vast stretch of flowers growing in the field in Poppies. Consider also, his Magnolia series of three that focuses entirely on the flowers. His recent work is transforming more and more into beautiful works of sculptural art.

I met Fu Hong about twenty years ago in Melbourne, and soon afterwards regularly visited his French-design stone cottage in Eltham. I would always spend a leisurely day viewing his artworks and chatting endlessly with him in the house or in the leafy courtyard that overlooked a densely wooded valley. Fu Hong’s multi-media artist partner Echo Cai would intermittently join us to relax and enjoy the amazing gourmet dishes and fine wines that Fu Hong always served.

I would like to speak about the history of his portrait Professor Mabel Lee to share with you some insights to Fu Hong the person. When prevailed upon to explain how he had achieved the unique results in the work, he explained that he wanted to capture the texture and colour of the skin and had chosen to work with pastel. He also said that using pastel meant much hard work pressing the pastel into the textured canvas to achieve a smooth skin-like effect. His portrait of me was the third time he had been a finalist for the Archibald Prize, and this year his Portrait of Peter Wegner (2022) was his fourth time as a finalist. Previously, he was Archibald finalist for his Dr Joseph Brown (2008) and his Dame Elisabeth Murdoch (2009). His Dr Joseph Brown was selected for the “Archi 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize” Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last year. Fu Hong has been a finalist in the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize several times.

His portrait Alex Miller, novelist is a finalist for the Darling Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery. Let’s wish him best of luck for when the prize is decided tomorrow in Canberra!

I digress again to talk about Fu Hong’s long-term interest in painting my portrait. The Black Saturday bushfires of Victoria in 2009 prompted Chinese Australian artists, including Fu Hong, to donate art works for sale in an exhibition called “Coming Home” held at the Australian Embassy in Beijing. The Australian Embassy media release of 6 April 2009 notes that $250,000 had been raised from sales. Fu Hong was furious to discover that the two works he submitted had been “curated out” of the exhibition, one of which was a sepia crayon portrait Mabel Lee that subsequently became the first draft of his 2021 entry for the Archibald Prize. Following the dimensions of that first sepia crayon draft, he spent some time drawing the outline and then working with pastel to create the softness of real skin according to the facial muscles. I was aware that he was fascinated by my single-lidded eyes, and he must have intuitively recognized that those eyes would be best expressed in profile. Fu Hong did not win the Archibald Prize with his portrait Professor Mabel Lee, but he said the work fully satisfied his own high standard for art creation and that he was content with this knowledge.

Fu Hong (b. 1946) grew up in Beijing, and intent on pursuing a career in art he studied at the China Art and Crafts Academy where he graduated with excellent results just as the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966. His family had a capitalist background, so he was classified as an offspring of the “Stinking Nine Black Categories.” The revolutionary committee at the academy gave him twenty-four hours to hand over all his “black books” and “black paintings.” That night he burned all his “black books,” i.e., his books on Western art, as well as all of his “black paintings,” i.e., his own paintings. He had been an excellent student and was immensely popular as the director of cultural and social events, but overnight the situation totally changed as Red Guards with the correct family bloodlines seized control. They objected to the presumptuous implications of the name his parents had given him, and renamed him “Hong” meaning “red,” and he has since continued to use this name.

His painting expertise was quickly recognized, and he was recruited to paint sayings from Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book on the inner walls of the Imperial Palace. He was also commissioned to paint mammoth Mao portraits to hang in public institutions, and this meant free meals every day and gifts such as Mao badges and copies of Mao’s Little Red Book. In 1967 he spent a year with the China Opera Academy. And a few years later, he worked as a mechanic in a carpet factory to answer Mao’s call to seek “re-education from the masses,” but because he was an accomplished violinist, he was often called away to perform in revolutionary operas such as The White-Haired Girl.

In 1976 the Cultural Revolution ended. From 1980-1985 he was artistic director of China National Central Television (CCTV) and was able to spend his evenings fully engrossed in painting. During the 10-month Anti-Spiritual-Pollution campaign in 1983 he was arrested for painting nudes. He was charged with copying the paintings of the “decadent capitalist West” and spent almost two years in jail. From 1985-1990 he was director of the Artist’s Gallery of the China National Art Association. In 1988 his first solo exhibition was held at the China National Gallery, the highest-ranking gallery in the country, and at the time he had already been exhibiting and selling his works in Singapore, Taiwan, UK, Germany, and France.

Fu Hong arrived in Australia in 1990, first staying in Perth, and soon afterwards relocating to Melbourne. It was a conscious decision to leave his ancestral land in search of creative freedom. Always an optimist and a strategic thinker, he knew that his only asset was his ability to paint, to paint well, and to paint quickly when necessary. After assessing his new environment, he began painting at popular sites such as beach promenades, and people began buying his paintings even before the paint had dried. As an oil painter the brilliant Australian sunlight filled him with joy, and his photographic memory allowed him to quickly paint the amazing scenery and flowers that he was discovering every day. The natural environment, plants, flowers, and the people became the subject of the 2000-odd paintings Fu Hong has sold in Australia.

There is no trace of nostalgia in Fu Hong’s art. He has chosen Australia as his home country, and this is the context of his paintings. His art only rarely depicts people of Chinese ethnicity, and it is impossible to discern any trace whatsoever of the artist’s own Chinese ethnicity. When Chinese subjects do occasionally appear, they are Chinese like himself who are an integral part of Australia’s multi-ethnic population.

Still, Life exhibition launch presentation by Prof. Mabel Lee

Vermilion Art

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