Claire Roberts

Ian Fairweather: A life in letters edited by Claire Roberts and John Thompson

November 2019, no. 416

Artist, hermit, instinctive communicator, a nomad who built studio nests for himself all over the globe, Ian Fairweather is a consistent paradox – and an enduring one. In an art world of fragile and fluctuating reputations, his work retains the esteem with which it was received – by his peers – when he landed in Australia in 1934 and, with their help, exhibited almost immediately. His way of life – eccentric, solitary, obsessive – was extraordinary then, and continued so until his death in 1974. Success never sanded off his diffident, abrasive edges. When presented with the International Cooperation Art Award in 1973, he mused, in a letter to his niece, Helga (‘Pippa’) Macnamara:

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China’s extraordinary economic and cultural ascent during the past two decades has generated significant international interest in Chinese contemporary art, especially in photography now widely promoted in the West as ‘Chinese new art’. Since it was first introduced to China in the 1840s, photography has languished somewhat, overshadowed by the traditional art ...

This fascinating book tells of the friendship between two Chinese artists: the traditional brush painter Huang Binhong (1865–1955) and the Chinese writer, critic, and translator Fou Lei (1908–66). While the long tail of Modernism swept through the twentieth century, decelerating only during the two world wars, and following reductive tendencies based on the early work of either Picasso or Duchamp, cultural workers in China had to deal with the end of the old imperial order, foreign invasion, the rise of communism, and the imposition of socialist realism, quickly followed by the decade-long Cultural Revolution. Then came Tiananmen Square and its twenty-year aftermath of commercial openness and democratic closure. These were dangerous times, and just as Walter Benjamin in the West committed suicide in the shadow of the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, so too did Fou Lei in 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

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