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“Did you know Claude Monet, the French painter who literally initiated the impressionist style, was also crazy about fashion? Did you know Edgar Degas, another prominent founder of impressionism, rejected the term and instead preferred to be called a realist?...”
Gu Mengjie, known as “Master Gu” on the Internet for his analysis of Western arts and also one of the web’s most popular cartoonists, told the audience these rarely heard stories at a book launch event for his new title “Xiao Gu Talks About Impressionism” in Shenzhen on Dec. 7.
Gu Mengjie gives a lecture in a Beijing bookstore. File photos
His trip to the southerly city was mandated by popular demand, and he had already held such lectures in Shanghai and Beijing, with Guangzhou being the last stop on the schedule.
On the book cover reads “Every aspect of aesthetics in the past 150 years starting with impressionism.” Gu explained that impressionism has been the most popular and familiar genre among the general public for its less old-fashioned and more flexible style compared with classicism, making it more adaptable and in touch with normal people. It is also not as flashy and avant-garde as modernism, therefore more understandable and down-to-earth. “We are situated in a time, not too far away and not too close, where us ordinary people identify the most with impressionism,” he said.
The book “Xiao Gu Talks About Impressionism.”
He further added that, according to his own observations, just as many impressionist artists had differing dispositions, some staying optimistic while others growing increasingly cynical. The one thing that remained constant was that they were all pretty rich.
In fact, this book is the third in a series of attempts, after “Xiao Gu Talks About Mythologies” and “Xiao Gu Talks About Paintings,” to deconceptualize Western arts by using anecdotes (and sometimes gossip) to help make it more approachable to the public. In answering why Western painters were so obsessed with mythical figures from one of his previous interviews, Gu put it in a way that quickly gripped the audience: It was the only excusable way of displaying nudity. Indeed, most of the men and women in ancient Greek and Roman mythology were naked. There was also an abundance of bloody, incestuous and homosexual content, which in the context of myths provided visual stimulation without bordering on taboos.
Gu's book “Xiao Gu Talks About Paintings” and some peripheral products.
Gu confessed that he hadn’t contemplated becoming a published writer when he started posting long posts on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo in the summer of 2013. In his own words, he was just trying to share the fascinating life stories of world-famous artists. It was nothing different from what’s already been done, only from a more personal and secular angle.
However, by lucky coincidence, those long blogs soon went viral and won him thousands of followers, attracting not just people with similar interests but also those who knew nothing about art.
Gu was unaware of his sudden fame on Chinese social media at first. Back then, he worked at a small design company in Australia where he attended college and had a life with his wife and two kids. It was only after he came back to China to promote his first book, “Xiao Gu Talks About Paintings,” and saw the packed room of fans that he realized he could really quit his job as a mediocre nine-to-five designer. He moved back to China with his family to start his newfound career.
A screenshot of an article in Gu's official Wechat account "grandpagu."
Ten years of living abroad taught Gu the differences between domestic and Western audiences in placing art. People overseas often don’t think of art as intimidating the way Chinese audiences do. According to Gu, it’s not that uncommon for a truck driver in Australia to visit a local gallery to relax on a regular weekend and maybe even buy a piece or two to decorate his living room. People shouldn’t take art too seriously. It’s much more important for beginners to learn to appreciate a piece of work than to “understand” it, he argued.
To further demonstrate his point, Gu gave an account of the semi-biographical fiction “The Moon and Sixpence,” in which the main character was actually adapted from the true story of the French post-impressionist painter and sculptor Paul Gauguin. The book depicts him giving up everything to pursue art in a dramatic twist of fate, which makes readers confused about his motives and might even make them feel somehow less worthy of art. In reality, the logic behind this sudden change was as plain and simple as it could get: He was forced out of a job due to a stock market crash. Gu believes that art isn’t a privilege belonging only to the elite class, and ordinary people can feel just as entitled to artistic pursuits, a message he has been trying to get across for years.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that critics are quick to condemn him for blaspheming classical arts, while at the same time his fervent fans are eager to crown him as the new king of popular art writers. His popularity is only growing. Currently, Gu has over 1 million followers on Sina Weibo and 1 million on his official WeChat account, generating tens of thousands of views on each post.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t always been easy for him to keep his fans captivated throughout the journey. Before he finally found success in writing popular art books, he had tried some tortuous methods to draw the public’s interest. He once hosted a curation on Leonardo Da Vinci’s younger version of the Mona Lisa at Shanghai’s Xintiandi. On recalling that incident, he regretted the slogan “This is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be this close to the world-class masterpiece,” because very few people thought it worthwhile to spend 120 yuan (US$18) just to see one painting, and it turned out to be a great disappointment for the visitors.
Be that as it may, he is never discouraged by setbacks and still has high hopes for the future of art popularization in China.