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Fu Baoshi adapts to revolution

The title of The Metropolitan Museum's new Chinese painting exhibit, Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), is misleading. The painter in question did live through the establishment of the Chinese Republic, the Sino-Japanese wars and the rise of the Communist party, but Fu is far more academic than revolutionary. It is his adaptability and willingness to lose himself in the river of history that makes this show so interesting.

We begin with the young Fu training himself to paint by copying the masters. He inscribes each of his early paintings with an explanation of his influences ("Cheng Sui, active 1605-1691, modeled his landscapes after Dong Yuan, active 930s-960s?I love his simple, vigorous style and imitate it"). Fu was also a professional maker of seals, and the first room of the show includes many of his seals. Like the early paintings, these are well-realized, workmanlike pieces, far more imitative than original.

Fu evidently became more dynamic in middle age. My favorite pieces in the exhibit are a series of rainy, romantic paintings of mountains and remote cottages, done at the end of World War II. "Whispering Rain at Dusk" is a wonderfully broody picture washed in purple-gray; the trees and their leaves look like raindrops. In all the hugeness of nature, the eye goes to a tiny red figure laboring up a path to a house high up in the mountains.

"Myriad Bamboo in Mist and Rain," similarly, is almost all green mist; trees and rain take over the picture except for some high, far-off mountain peaks and a clean-looking river. Three friends shelter in a cottage, and we can almost hear their crackling fire.

After Mao Zedong took power, Fu found work as a propagandist. We generally expect to look down on propaganda, but in fact, Fu's Mao-era work is wonderfully fresh. He traveled to the Soviet Union with a delegation of Chinese artists and painted the parks, cathedrals and airports he saw there.

The trip obviously energized him; suddenly, the landscape is neither an academic study nor a reflection of mood but a real place that must be observed and recorded in detail. The trees and factory windows are charming in their sharp-outlined specificity.

Fu's homages to Mao are also effective. Soldiers, again closely observed in detailed uniforms, trudge bravely through the snow. A cowherd appears to assure peasants that more prosperous times are coming. A number of paintings are inspired by Mao's poetry. It is not difficult to see in these late works the same capable young painter who so dutifully copied the works of the ancient masters.

Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965)

Through April 15, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave., 212-570-3894, www.metmuseum.org.

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