Xiang Li is an internationally acclaimed artist who specializes in the reproduction and restoration of ancient Chinese paintings. She has attained celebrity status in her native China, as evidenced by the high praise she has earned from top art scholars and even the Last Emperor’s brother, Pu Jie, who said that she is “one of the most extraordinary artists of our time.” Currently, an entire museum is being built in Hainan to showcase one of her collections, specifically her depiction of 413 scenes from the Chinese classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber. As part of this enterprise, books and pictures of Ms. Li’s paintings will be published and sold in the museum along with other souvenirs.
The Master Studio Years at the Forbidden City of Beijing, China:
The Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, is one of the world’s most prestigious and recognized museums. The Master Studio housed within The Palace Museum, which specialized in ancient Chinese art reproduction and restoration, signifies the highest designation of excellence in this profession.
In recognition of Li’s skills and aptitude, she was selected among the chosen few for a position at the Master Studio. The Palace Museum hosts three reproduction studios called the Master Studio, East Studio and Back Studio. The Master Studio hosts the most senior reproduction artists. Li was the first among her generation of artists to enter the Master Studio and worked there for 37 years. According to the “Lineage of Masters Diagram” created by The Palace Museum, 11 of the 22 artists worked at the Master Studio between the years of 1970 – 2007, the rest of them resided in either the East or the Back Studio.
While working at the Master Studio, Li had the privilege to apprentice under five top-tier Masters of the 20th Century – as shown at the top of the Lineage of Master Diagram and namely: Zhongyu Jin, Linzhai Chen, Zhonglian Feng, Zhuyou Zheng and Yumin Jin.
One of the masters, Zhongyu Jin, was invited by the Vice President of China, Zhou Enlai, from Shanghai to Beijing to work at the National Palace Museum for decades. His reproduction work was so extraordinary that even experts could not tell his paintings apart from the originals; Master Zhonglian Feng was the head of the Research Institute of Culture and History in China before she came to the National Palace Museum. She graduated with a B.A. in Art History and was the first female valedictorian at the Pu Ren University in Taiwan. She served as the Executive Art Director at the Master Studio; Master Linzhai Chen was elected as a Board Member to enter the Hu She Fine Art Group in 1929. The Group was the largest, the most influential and international Fine Art Group in China. He later formed the famous Si You Art Group along with three other artists. He was also the first seated reproduction artist and ancient art appraiser at the most prestigious auction house called “Rong Bao Zhai” in the 1950s and 1960s.
All five of these Art Reproduction Masters were born in late 1800s and early 1900s. In those days, the average Chinese citizen had no access to the type of information and training we do today. Moreover, the opportunity to learn traditional Chinese art and calligraphy was rare. This is why in all Chinese arts, including but not limited to painting, masters are always identified by their lineage.
An Extraordinary Career:
Thorough her reproduction work at the Beijing Palace Museum, Xiang Li acquired uncommon knowledge and familiarity with the tradition of painting in China. Her work spans the tradition all the way from the Warring States Period (5th cent. – 221 BC) to the modern period. Moreover, by reproducing traditional works, she has acquired a technical knowledge of past artistic accomplishments and skills that is possible only through re-creating originals. Many of these masterpieces were painted in the gongbi style of fine brushwork and meticulous attention to detail. Her gongbi-style paintings follow in the tradition of imperial court painters who recorded notable events for Chinese emperors.
Xiang Li’s tenure at the Palace Museum was extraordinary. Despite the intensive labor and painstaking precision demanded by each individual instead-display, Li produced 11 paintings and calligraphies certified by the Palace Museum as official reproductions. Not only was Li extraordinarily prolific, but moreover the nature of her reproductions is remarkable because she specialized in the most difficult styles and eras. The Song Dynasty, to which many of her works belong, constitutes some of the most complicated ancient Chinese artwork and it is not by chance that these were Li’s assignments – her vast expertise makes her uniquely qualified to take on the most difficult tasks. Importantly, the production of instead-displays allows for ancient treasures of Chinese culture to be more readily shipped around the world to such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, making them a critical contribution to art on an international scale as well as in their native China.
Ms. Li’s intimate familiarity with the techniques of Ancient Chinese art presented her with an opportunity for its application that would be absent for anyone without her expansive knowledge, extensive training, and unique aptitude (which is to say nearly everyone). Over 10 years, Li completed the Dreams of the Red Chamber collection, relying heavily on her mastery of Chinese brushwork, combined with her comprehensive knowledge of the nuances of each epoch of Chinese styles. The collection exhibits one of the three traditional Chinese painting techniques: the combination of Gongbi and Xieyi. The expertise Li developed at the Palace Museum in the use of these styles establishes her as one of the very few modern artists able to create such an original collection from so traditional a framework. The mastery of Gongbi style painting is particularly difficult and its application here, as in her work on instead-displays, conveys her impressive mastery of artistic reproduction and her unique contributions to the preservation of Ancient Chinese art technique and style.