I’d like to point out two notable events in the world of activist art: the current bicentenary of Mr. Charles Dickens and the first exhibition in North America of the works of Chinese Painter Xu Beihong.
Two hundred years since the great English writer’s birth and museums and literary organizations around the world are marking the occasion with special exhibits, commemorative products (would he wince or puff with pride?), readings and all manner of performances. If you plan to be in London between Dec. 9 and June 2012, you’ll be lucky enough to see the facsimile of his working manuscript of Great Expectations, revealing his editing process, at the Dickens and London exhibition at the Museum of London.
Dickens’s particular alchemy was the blending of starvation, poverty, child labor, disease and unthinkable pollution with humor, heightening awareness among the elite of the dismal living conditions wrought by industrialization during the Victorian era. As a young student of literature, I resisted him mightily. When my teacher pointed out the ability of Dickens to create parlor conversation out of the unspeakable, I couldn’t get enough of him and still can’t.
I visited the Xu Beihong exhibit at the Denver Art Museum and found myself dazzled for hours by this man’s passion for his country and its people. Considered the father of modern Chinese painting, Xu Beihong used a variety of media–from pastel to silk–in his creations of landscapes, animals and portraits to articulate his pride and sorrow in his motherland. The Beijing city website calls him an “enthusiastic patriot,” but that barely does him or his art justice. When you stand in front of these pieces, particularly “Galloping Horse,” you see in the surge of the horses’ forelegs, the flare of the nostrils, and the tossed manes the joy and the fierceness of his love for China and his urging of his countrymen to resistance against invasion, be it from foreign troops or that of mediocrity of effort.
This is the sort of art that demands “great expectations” from all of us.