He Muqun Online Exhibition – Series Exhibition of Museum’s Collection of Ningbo Artists


Interview at He’s home in Shanghai, March 11, 2008

“Girl, it would be a tough road for you to do art only.”

Pan Yuliang lamented after reviewing He Muqun’s artworks. Like He Muqun, Pan Yuliang also lived and worked overseas. This sentence is not only the protection and warning from a big sister, but also the encouragement from the first generation of Chinese oil painters to second generation. It also implies the “ignored” hardship for female artists in the past mainstream art history.

He Muqun was born in Ningbo in 1924. Her grandfather was a renowned local traditional Chinese physician who owned abundant books at home. Her mother was good at Chinese ink paintings. Her family background laid the foundation for her education and talent of calligraphy and paintings. Her family moved to Shanghai after the Anti-Japanese War started and was getting poorer. She had to work at a factory in the day time to support her family. But she continued to study fine art at a night school.

In late 1940s, He Muqun visited Taiwan, Brazil and Spain. In 1965, though already 41, she went to Paris and started her 37 years’ tough art journey.

He Muqun, Toy Series

Oil on canvas, 162×144cm, 1968

Unknown collection

At that time, there were various contemporary art styles and schools in the west. But He Muqun’s art position was never been shaken despite multiple art styles from abstract expressionism to the very opposite, pop art. In 1968, her oil painting, Toy Series, won the grand prix of French Female Salon. The figures in the painting, without details, are portrayed with rough touches and simple forms. The two vague figures, colored in red and green, look like toys, but provide a true profound feeling from life.

The obvious style of “post impressionism” and “Paris School” not only lays the foundation of her oil paintings, but also affects the development of her printmaking.

He Muqun, Scenery

Oil on canvas, 100×72cm, 2001

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun, Mend the Net

Etching on paper, 49.5×39cm, 1968

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

In Paris, He Muqun went to Académie de la Grande Chaumière to study painting almost every day. As the common cradle for Chinese artists in France, Académie de la Grande Chaumière attracted many Chinese artists to study, including Chang Yu, Pan Yuliang and Zhao Wuji. He Muqun once said in an interview that “I often met with Pan Yuliang when I was in Paris, and she helped me in both art and life.” It’s also worth mentioning that the studio Muqun used is once the studio of Zhao Wuji. Hence, we could see the inheritance among Chinese artists in France.

He Muqun, Buy the Baguette

Etching on paper, 39×44cm, 1972

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

In Grande Chaumière, He Muqun often spent the whole day painting and only went out to buy some baguette when hungry. According to Li Chao, a scholar, during that time in Paris, oil paintings were difficult to sell, while prints were more popular. Therefore, He Muqun studied etching to make a living. It is even a common cultural experience for artists in France in their artistic explorations. Her etchings were sold good and she gradually had a steady life in Paris. Based on her memory, she created various prints but only around 90 were left. The others were sold to different places.

The thirty prints collected by Ningbo Museum of Art cover her prime time in 1960s and 1970s when she painted and created day and night. The form, language, thoughts and emotions all witness and embody her art life in Paris.

The themes, though simple objects such as still life, people and scenery, are highly eternal spiritual products. Straight and simple composition, concise and seasoned postures, bold and strong colors jump between memories and reality. As Li Chao concluded:” the most touching part of He Muqun’s art is building the super natural philosophical reality of objects in her own world.”

He Muqun, Fruit

Etching on paper, 49.5×64.5cm, 1973

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun, Man of Sraw

Etching on paper, 64.5×49cm

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun, Father and Daughter

Etching on paper, 39×44.5cm, 1973

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun, Father and Son

Etching on paper, 75×56cm

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun, Scenery

Etching on paper, 26×38cm

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun stayed in Shanghai in 1940s, in Brazil in 1950s and in Paris afterwards. Her travelling brought extensive and abundant experience to He Muqun. Turbulences, setbacks, peace and serenity are all reflected in her paintings. As scholar Gao Qianhui lamented after she saw Muqun’s artworks at her home at the end of last century:” I find what she painted are not fruit, but food. She sent me two feelings that day: mother and food.”

He Muqun, Double Fish

Etching on paper, 36×22.5cm, 1971

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun, Bananas and Apples

Oil on canvas, 73×100cm, 1999

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun, Red Apples

Oil on canvas, 46×54cm, 1998

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

He Muqun, Pumpkin

Oil on canvas, 60×73cm, 1992

Collected by Ningbo Museum of Art

Reviewing the collection of He Muqun at NMA, we are looking at the “self-reflection” in her paintings, the true protagonist, rather than the forms such as lines and colors. There is no conventional realism, exaggerated peculiarity nor showoff. There is only the intriguing power lying in the paintings, silently and gently. As Fan Di’an said:” With close observations, He Muqun conveyed the status where she lived with them and the demand of conversations with them in life.” What she expressed is herself, her life, her mood, her life conditions and aesthetic dreams.

According to the memory of Zhang Weiping, Deputy Director of Ningbo Museum of Art, “He Muqun was always modifying her oil paintings. She would even pick up paintings created in 1960s and 1970s and made modifications again and again.” Therefore, the oil paintings displayed above were results of multiple modifications. The final version presents a sense of heaviness created by colors layer upon layer. Such process is like how “mother” treats “food”, ordinary and simple, yet eternal and touching. Or we could put it as “ordinary and transcendent”.

As many museums held solo exhibitions for He Muqun at the beginning of this century, including Shanghai Art Museum, National Art Museum of China and Ningbo Museum of Art, many scholars conducted researches on Muqun’s artwork. We believe, in the foreseeable future, there will be a clear and comprehensive understanding of Chinese artists living overseas in 20th century like He Muqun. Let’s make the art journey “started” in last century “return” in the new century!


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Translated by: Fan Xinyi