Artist given brush-up

Artist given brush-up

Feng Zikai's childlike paintings, once ridiculed during his lifetime, now have an appreciative audience as a new exhibition reveals

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Feng Zikai's Lotus leaf hats
Feng Zikai's Lotus leaf hats
Photos: Thomas Yau/SCMP
Feng Zikai's East-meets-West cartoons and paintings, drawn in a childlike style, have inspired people since the 1920s. The late artist was always trying to reach out to the public, in the hope his simplistic and effortless art would convey a deeper meaning beyond his crisp lines. Today, looking at his work is both a visual and conceptual experience.

Feng, who was born in 1898, died in 1975. A retrospective exhibition, "Imperishable Affection: The Art of Feng Zikai", featuring more than 200 of his best works, is on at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui until October 7.

Curator Szeto Yuen-kit says Feng's work is now particularly popular in Hong Kong. Among the celebrities who admire Feng's art are food critic Chua Lam, fiction writer Xu Xi, and Alice Mak, co-creator of cartoon character McDull.

"Feng managed to put an element of pop culture into his work, which meant they appealed to the public," Szeto says. "He believed art shouldn't be something stuck on a pedestal; it should give off a positive energy, and resonate and be understood by most people. He could do that with his art."

He says Feng's work was based on traditional Chinese single-colour ink, or shuimo, paintings. The artist was also influenced by living in Japan and his mentor, Hong Yi , an enthusiast of Japanese art and calligraphy.

Feng's works were once ridiculed for being cartoons, rather than masterpieces that would attract mainstream appreciation. But the definition of art changes with time, and people are now starting to appreciate the contemporary and satirical elements to his work.

His paintings normally include a brush-sketched scenario, coupled with a witty phrase or line to create a mood, or add a subtle meaning to the image.

Szeto says Feng's works may look like improvised, five-minute sketches, but a great deal of thought went into the composition of each picture.

Behind each painting was a story that reflected Feng's view of social issues and trends.

In one key piece, Hand-Me-Downs, four siblings are shown, each wearing clothes of starkly different condition. The text reads, "New for the eldest, old for the second, worn-out for the third, patched for the fourth". It is said to reflect the time in history when an item of clothing was handed down from the eldest to the youngest child, because of the low income on the mainland. Hong Kong cartoonist David Ki says it reminds him of his past, when he wore his elder sister's clothes.

In another picture, Work for Fun, two children are seen lifting wooden furniture and constructing a site for games. The cartoon reflects the innocence of childhood, and working for the sake of enjoying the process. Feng tried to create this work from a child's viewpoint after becoming tired of adult influences, which had made his work more realistic and less creative.

Although images of Feng's comics can be seen on the internet, Szeto says people should visit the gallery to experience seeing Feng's art close up. "His ink brushstrokes are confident and fluid, which can't be seen on reproduced or digital images," Szeto says.

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