I came across the cartoon of Feng Zikai (1898-1975) when I was growing up and I was only too happy to see that there was an exhibition of his works at the Hong Kong Museum of Art on my recent visit. “Imperishable Affection” was the title of the exhibition. It was probably the largest exhibition of the work of Feng with contributions from his family and friends, collectors, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in China.
There were two themes in the Exhibition: “Creating a World of Compassion” and “Cultivating Life and Soul”. The exhibits revealed Feng’s philosophy on his artistic creation, and his beliefs as a person living through a turbulent period in Chinese history. They also reflected the transition of the artist’s style and subject matter in response to changes in the social milieu.
Feng called his works cartoons, but unlike modern-day cartoons which were created to entertain or to satirize, he described his cartoons to be reflective, in that they serve as a record of what and how he felt. He picked his subject matter from the ordinary people he met in the street and events happening around him. His drawings were as much works of art as they were cartoons. His earlier works had a more traditional flavour–he studied Chinese painting with his teacher, Li Shutong, who also had a profound influence in his Buddhist belief. His inspiration came from Chinese poetry. His style then became more a hybrid of Chinese and western painting, and his black and white drawings were akin charcoal sketches and wood-block printing.
His lines were simple and neat. Under the theme “Creating a World of Compassion”, with a few deft strokes, his caring concerns for everything that has life were reflected by his plea not to kill.
On a more positive note, his also had several painting to encourage the love of nature and care for the environment.
His nationalism and his dislike for the Sino-Japanese War were behind a series of cartoons calling for support for the soldiers, but his humanism shone through in the painting depicting as solider playing an er wu, a traditional Chinese instrument, and entitled “War and Music”.
Under the theme of “Cultivating Life and Soul”, his paintings of children, family life, and ordinary people he came across came to life in a few poignant strokes.
Even without showing much facial features, he captured the pleasure of having one’s ears cleaned by another person in one cartoon, and in another, the sense of excitement of a child dragging a elderly lady with bound feet along, and the title of the painting was “The Gongs and Drums Are Sounding”.
It was a comprehensive exhibition of the art and the artist’s message. There was a lot to learn and to see in the exhibits. Feng Zikai’s style is iconic and unmatched by other artists in his genre.
It is all accolade to Feng about his influence on modern Chinese art today. However, through his trials and tribulations, Feng was labelled an intellectual, and he was ridiculed and denounced during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, even to the time of his death in 1975. He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1978. The same Communist government which had politically persecuted him then turned around to promote him and his art.
Feng’s integrity remained unwavering throughout his life. He continued to draw to extol compassion and humanity. His affection for Life and Humanity never died. He eschewed propaganda; and yet, after his death, was he being used as a tool for propaganda? This would be such an irony.