With the enormous volume of economic and cultural transfer between China and the West today, it has almost become forgotten that, only decades ago, China was all but completely shut to the Western world. Between the founding of the Communist Republic in 1949 and the economic reforms in the late 1970s, China’s only contact with the ‘West’ was with countries of the Eastern Block, in particular the Soviet Union. For Chinese artists, encounters with Russian and Eastern European artists was their only window to the art of the outside world.
Many friendships were forged in the 1950s, when state-organized mutual visits between Chinese and Soviet artists were especially frequent. The friendship between Ivan Titkov (1905-1993), “People’s Artist of Siberia” and Jiang Zhaohe (1904-1986), the “Chinese Rembrandt”, is a good example. When Titkov visited Beijing in 1956, heading a delegation of Novosibirsk artists, he met with Jiang, then a member of the Chinese Artists’ Association. They immediately recognised how much they had in common: both came from humble circumstances and turned as a young men to art as their calling; both endured the hardships of war which informed their art; and both shared in their paintings a deep sympathy for the human condition.
Jiang’s portrait of Titkov was completed during this visit. From Jiang’s favourite three-quarter angle, it shows an artist at the height of his accomplishment looking determinedly into the distance. Confident, full of entrepreneurial energy whilst exuding a deep humaneness and compassion, the subtleties of this painting show how well Jiang understood his sitter and friend. Almost fifty years later, on Titkov’s 100th birthday in 2005, this portrait would occupy a central place in his retrospective in Novosibirsk, reminding people of the great socialist-humanist artist as seen through the eyes of a Chinese painter.
Jiang Zhaohe is called father of modern Chinese figure painting for introducing Western pictorial realism, notably three-dimensionality and modelled form, into traditional Chinese brushwork. His paintings, which at a distance look like pencil drawings, are actually carried out in fine washes of ink on Chinese xuan paper, a highly unforgiving medium. Apart from reforming the traditional technique, Jiang is most celebrated for his commitment to recording the suffering of the deprived and oppressed. His masterpiece Refugees, portraying men, women and children displaced by the Sino-Japanese war, upset the Japanese occupiers so much that it was confiscated from exhibition twice.
Ivan Titkov’s paintings, similar to Jiang Zhaohe’s, are characterized by the love for his people and ancestral land, in his case Siberia. In a career that spanned nearly seven decades, he devoted himself to depicting the diverse ethnicities, cultures and landscapes of this vast territory. His works, suffused with poeticism and romanticism, are painted hymns to the land of Siberia. Titkov was also a committed art teacher and initiator of the creation of regional art galleries in Siberia, the reason why he was called “the patriarch of Siberian culture” by one art critic. Interestingly, after meeting Jiang Zhaohe in Beijing, Titkov would sometimes turn to Chinese subjects, painting actors of Peking Opera and immortals from Chinese legends.
The Portrait of Ivan Titkov by Jiang Zhaohe is a token of their friendship. Kept in Titkov’s family until now, it will be offered for sale at in our London Fine Asian Works of Art auction on 16 May, 2018. It will also be accompanied by another work by Zhaohe entitled "Elderly Man" from the same period.