After the end of the Opium War in China in 1842, Shanghai opened itself to trade with the outside world. A little after that, the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64, which took place in southern China and Nanjing, funneled into the metropolis artists and scholars seeking refuge.

The result was a city with a diverse mixture of Chinese, Western and Japanese cultures, and one whose newly rich merchants and middle class started to emulate the upper classes by decorating their homes and offices with works of art. But Shanghai’s nouveau riche did not seek out the classic, philosophically high-minded painting of traditional China, seeking instead colorful and vibrant images of flowers and individuals that were readily understood without bookish learning.

Consequently, what had been revered subjects with centuries of intellectual patina in traditional highbrow circles became, in the Shanghai context, fuel for popular culture. The new works carried enough expressiveness, individualism and innovation to usher in a period of artistic modernism executed within Chinese traditions that paralleled urban and industrial changes taking place.

Art from the period is showing till Oct. 14 in the “Shanghai Modern” exhibition at The Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, before traveling to Shoto City Museum of Art in Shibuya, Tokyo, from Dec. 11.

Wu Changshuo’s “The Wealth and Honor of Halls — Peony, Magnolia and Rock” (1917) appears to be painted simple, fast and loose. The brushwork is expressive, the color is bold and decorative, and the genre is flower- and rock-painting rather than the landscapes then popular. Such a style characterized the Shanghai School that emerged in the revitalized port city in the late-19th and early-20th centuries to challenge the learned works that had dominated since the Song Period (960-1279).

In the literati tradition, painting was a sophisticated leisure activity for landowners and imperial officials — not a commercially oriented practice catering to the whims of a newly buoyant market. Though painting for financial gain was despised by the literati, it was standard practice for the Shanghai School, who sold works through dealers and shops. As merchants occupied the lowest rung in the Confucian social order, the movement’s artists during its early flourishing were commonly denigrated.

One such painter was Ren Yi (1840-96), who was from a humble background: his father was in the grain-dealing business, though he painted portraits on the side. Uneducated and unashamedly a “professional” artist, a common story has it that Ren began his career by faking pictures by his contemporary Ren Xiong (1820-64). Both artists feature in the exhibition, along with Ren Xun (1835-93) and Ren Yu (1853-1901), who round out the “Four Rens” — the heart of the early Shanghai School.

Wu (1844-1927) brought a measure of social respectability lacking in earlier practitioners. Born into a traditional scholar/official family, he was well educated in poetry, calligraphy and seal-carving. Still, he learned to paint from the lowly Ren Yi, a lifelong friend. Wu ended up with many Japanese patrons in Shanghai and Japan.

The Shanghai School didn’t completely turn its back on the past as it continued the development of archaic scripts from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Zhao Zhiqian (1829-84), who never passed the civil service examinations that would have given him access to higher stations in society, was an accomplished seal-carver and calligrapher and a master of many styles.

In Zhao’s “Passage from Baopuzi in Regular Script” (1869) the brush strokes become more slanted from lower left to upper right, making the characters appear to rise. Such calligraphy looked more vigorous than the well-worn, mainstream style derived from Wang Xizhi (303-361) in his “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering.”

The new movement never really interrupted conventional literati painting, whose practitioners continued to be as aloof as ever. As such, the modern literati painter Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) said: “That literati painting is not being appreciated by the masses only proves the sublimity of its nature.”

Regardless, with Shanghai as a center of painting, scholarly ideas about the sacred status of art dissolved due to the development of a modern art market with profiteering dealers.

Artistically, though, it is possible to consider the Shanghai School’s work as a commercialized and modern literati style. The movement drew upon an alternative lineage to the genre that grew out of the 17th and early 18th centuries, best exemplified by the “Eight Eccentrics” of Yangzhou. Works characteristic of Yangzhou, which was also a commercial hub, eschewed landscapes for humbler subjects — mostly plants. They were brightly colored with mixed styles, pigments and techniques that cultivated eclecticism.

But it was not only in the past that legitimacy was found. After all, it was only after Qi Baishi (1863-1957), perhaps China’s most famous 20th-century painter, began to more closely follow the style of Wu Changshuo that he garnered success, artistic standing and — perhaps most importantly for a follower of the money-conscious Shanghai School — exorbitant prices.

“Shanghai Modern” is showing till Oct. 14 (closed Sept. 25) at Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, 1-82 Chausuyamacho, Tennoji-ku, Osaka; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon. and Sept. 25; open holidays and closed the following day). The show then travels to Shoto City Museum of Art, Shibuya, Tokyo; Dec. 11-Jan. 27. For more information call (06) 6771-4874 or visit osaka-art.info-museum.net

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