Art for the New Nation: the Rise of the Lingnan School in the 1920s and the 1930s

Liu, Yan Prynne 劉艷
2019
Supervisor: Dr. Yeewan Koon

Taking the social art history approach, this thesis examines how Gao Jianfu 高劍父 (1879-1951) presented himself as the leader of a new type of Chinese painting and promoted the Lingnan School from a regional Guangdong art school to the one representing a national style. I contend that Gao Jianfu achieved this not only through developing a distinctive style but also through newspapers, among his social network, and as part of modern art education. Gao Jianfu is both the founder of the Lingnan School and a founding member of the Nationalist party. Because of his dual identities, an artist and a revolutionary, he perceived the arts from a political perspective. In his view, fine arts should contribute to the construction of a modern country and play an active role in representing the new nation.

By reexaminining important stages in Gao Jianfu’s life and scrutinising Gao’s practices within a social and historical context, I argue that the rapid development of the Lingnan School in the 1920s and the 1930s was closed associated with the expansion of Gao Jianfu’s social network within the Nationalist government. Relying on his personal connections with key officials in the Nationalist government, Gao expanded his social network and ascended to important positions at the committees of official exhibitions. Gao Jianfu’s connections in the government provided him precious chance to be the first Chinese artist who held touring exhibitions in southeast Asia and India. Gao’s leading position in exhibition committees further ensured the favourable presentations of the Lingnan School’s art works at national and international exhibitions, which subsequently gave rise to the School’s reputation in the art world. The successful presentation of the Lingnan School at various official exhibitions cemented both Gao Jianfu and the School’s leading status in modern China.

The successful transformation of the Lingnan School from a regional school to a national one relates to the larger history of the formation of state art in modern China. By exploring the government supports Gao Jianfu received for his art and the Lingnan School, this study illustrates how the Nationalist government utilized fine arts as a political and diplomatic tool to project national power. It was in this context that Gao Jianfu’s advocacy –  a new Chinese painting for the new nation was widely supported by government officials and leading scholars. Through detailed analysis of Gao’s career within the socio-historical context of the day, this study reevaluates the significance of Gao Jianfu and the Lingnan School in modern China’s art history and highlights their contributions to the formation of China’s state art.