Tian Hen and His Five Hundred Retainers

Tian Hen and His Five Hundred Retainers
, 1928-1930

oil on canvas
H.19.8 X W.35.5cm
Xu Beihong Memorial Museum

Xu Beihong    1893-1953   China

A painter and theoretician,  Xu studied in the 1920s in France and Germany. He rejected the new movements happening in European art at the time and instead turned to the nineteenth century Romantic and Academic styles. Xu would go on to favor realism, mixing it with the traditional Chinese moralistic approach.

This painting recounts the suicide of the overthrown king, Tian Hen, after he was summoned to present himself to the new emperor. Five hundred of his followers, upon hearing the news, took their own lives. After the invasion of Mainland China by the Japanese in 1931, the piece became a potent symbol of protest. It became an allegory for the Chinese resisting the Japanese.

 Xu exhibited his traditional Chinese horse paintings, for which he became renowned, to raise money for the victims of the war. Xu’s realistic style is rarely talked about today.

 Who would have thought that his theory of realism would continue to this day in the style of Cynical Realism, which is far from the socialist content?



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