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The brush as a weapon: KMT war artist's works in China's national museum

Updated: 07 14 , 2015 09:12
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BEIJING -- The blue cockpit of a Kuomintang (KMT) aircraft soars at the center of the dogfight as bullets rip through the sky and three white Japanese planes at the bottom are attacked on a bombing raid over China.

The oil painting, created 77 years ago by Liang Youming, still impresses viewers with its Hollywood movie-style depiction of an intense air battle.

But to the artist, it was a personal tribute to the under-appreciated sacrifices of China's air force, which fought a fierce defense against invading Japanese forces. One of the pilots, Liang's friend, was killed at the age of 26 after shooting down a Japanese aircraft over Hengyang, central China's Hunan Province, on August 18, 1938.

Liang, an official war artist of the Kuomintang army, painted many scenes of China's air force in action. Some are now among the thousand artworks on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing as a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of China's victory in the war against Japan aggression.

The 55 paintings by Liang Youming "fill the gap in the museum's collection of wartime art," says Chen Lvsheng, deputy curator of the museum. Chen says the museum had tried to collect other Kuomintang artifacts over the years, but to little avail.

"The National Museum has been committed for a long time to collecting revolutionary artworks of Communist Party since 1949," Chen adds.

Many KMT supporters and officials, including Liang, fled to the island of Taiwan at the end of the war of liberation in 1949.

Liang Zhengjun, the painter's son, donated the KMT war paintings earlier this year.

"All his works belong to the country," Liang Zhengjun told Xinhua. "History is a mirror. People are living in a world of increasing communications, so I hope younger generations gain a comprehensive understanding of the war."

Born in 1906 in Shanghai, Liang was a versatile painter who worked in Western and Chinese styles in oils, watercolors and pastels. He and his two brothers, also artists, were known as "The Three Liangs" of contemporary Chinese painting.

Liang initially liked to portray sheep, which, his son said, reflected his father's gentleness and patience. Liang Zhengjun recalled how his father, instead of scolding him when he misbehaved, would leave a note on his table, saying, "It should be time to study. Why did you go out and play around?"

Once a friend told Liang that people were selling counterfeits of his paintings, but Liang chose to let it go. He was content if the fake paintings helped others make a living. Besides, he thought, he could never stop people counterfeiting, especially after his death, so it was meaningless to argue.

But his mild manners hid a brave heart and a patriotic fervor that stemmed from his grandfather who served in the Beiyang Fleet, the Chinese naval force of the late Qing Dynasty. After a series of failed campaigns, the old man hoped future generations could defend the country against its enemies.

In the 1920s, warlords exhausted China, fighting to extend their territories. At that time, Liang Youming decided to lay down his pen and pick up a gun to serve his country.

In 1926, he joined the Whampoa Military Academy, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, who noted his artistic talent. Chiang said to him, "Your brush is your weapon." From then on, instead of fighting on the frontline, he was an official artist for the army.

Liang's interest in aircraft grew when he realized China's air force received little recognition for its contribution to the war. China was believed to be weak in the air. The public knew little about the air war. Liang hoped to pay tribute to the fighter pilots.

Drawing air battles was dangerous. While others hurried to the air-raid shelters, Liang was often watching the dog fights from the street and sketching the aircraft.

He knew little about planes, but he learned from questioning pilots and field trips, which sometimes landed him in trouble. Once, he was detained by air field guards, who accused him of spying and did not release him until a friend bailed him out.

At first, the pilots thought little of his works: "The planes you drew could not fly," he was told. He started studying aviation dynamics and engineering, and his work began showing attention to details.

He made aircraft models and hung them from his ceiling. Liang Zhengjun recalled his father sometimes climbed a ladder or lay on the ground, so that he could see the aircraft from different perspectives.

"He saw himself as an historical painter. History must be drawn according to the facts," said Liang Zhengjung. "He even studied the weather and Japanese planes."

Once a Belgian collector asked Liang to name his price for his works, but the artist declined. He preferred exchanging his paintings directly for much needed aircraft for the air force.

Liang also depicted ordinary people during the war.

"In his works, you can see women making uniforms, teenagers donating money to the war, and people rescuing soldiers from the battlefield," Liang Zhengjun said.

Liang moved to Taiwan after 1949, where he continued painting and teaching art. He died at the age of 78 in 1984.

On July 8, the National Museum of China held a ceremony to officially receive Liang Youming's artworks. "Mr Liang's works basically represent all the achievements and contributions of Kuomintang's army painters," said Chen Lvsheng.

Despite being a lifelong member of the Kuomintang, Liang never showed his political affiliations in his works. Liang Zhengjun said that his father's pictures are in principle politically neutral.

"My father hoped all people could have a patriotic heart, and all stand up for the war," Liang Zhengjun said.

"My father would be very happy if he could see the great development that China has achieved under its reform and opening up." Enditem (Wong Tsz Sang also contributed to the story)

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