Jane Ju faced a jarring experience when she first visited her mother country in 1994. Her mental image of China drew from the picturesque mountaintops and rural landscapes recreated in paintings by her father, Chinese master artist I-Hsiung Ju. But what she saw was the “disconcerting” discrepancy of nature giving way to modernization.
“If it was hard for me to reconcile my image of an old China with the new, it must have been even harder for my father,” Ms. Ju told Global Atlanta by email from her current home in Taiwan.
Her father fled the embattled country as a young man and political refugee in the aftermath of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Nearly half a century after his relocation, Mr. Ju would return with his family, allowing Jane to capture a sense of the struggle that inspired his artistic journey decades into the future.
The paintings of I-Hsiung Ju are currently on display at the Millennium Gate Museum in Atlanta through Sunday, Oct. 18. His careful work, which typically blends traditional forms with modern subjects, reflects a conflicted generation of displaced Chinese nationalists who learned to cope with the turbulent politics of their country as it transitioned into communism.
“In some sense, they always longed for the past.” said Ms. Ju, regarding exiles like her father who left in 1947 in protest of Japanese and later, Communist rule. “It was like a home that was lost.”
Ms. Ju believed her father always dreamed to return and said nostalgia for an older, peaceful China grew into his vernacular and tone. He frequently used phrases such as “when I was young” and began to share childhood and wartime memories when China opened up to the world in the late ’70s, she recalled.
Born in 1923 on the coastal Jiangsu Province, Mr. Ju absorbed the fundamentals of ink brush painting from his father until a brutal Japanese invasion scattered the family throughout eastern China at age 15. In his memoirs, he describes a subsequent period of instability and hostility that would define the lives of so many of China’s embittered youth who suffered through tensions surrounding World War II:
“Outraged by the war, I joined a guerrilla unit to fight against the Japanese. In the following two years, we engaged the Japanese on so many occasions…I was wounded and captured, and escaped; I was displaced to the south of Anhui Province and the west of Zhejiang Province…”
Mr. Ju eventually completed his education and relocated to the Philippines to teach and write but his involvement with the Sino-Japanese conflict brought unforeseen consequences. Local anti-Soviet parties interpreted many of his essays and artwork as Communist propaganda and he was pressured to quit teaching prompting him finally to move to the U.S. in 1968 where he was recruited to teach at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
Despite witnessing the atrocity of war and its reverberations, the revered artist emerged with a resilient appreciation for life and beauty that rests at the core of his artistic expression, his daughter said. Large panoramas of the undulating Yangtze River and breathtaking Huangshan mountains reveal a narrative of recovery and refuge that tracks Mr. Ju’s travels across China after he escaped Japanese imprisonment.
“It really reflects an old man in his eighties who is thinking back about his past,” Ms. Ju said about the collection in Atlanta. “It’s his personal journey, but he wanted to share this with the world.”
Samantha Wright, assistant curator at the Millennium Gate Museum, explained how Mr. Ju’s methods work within an ancient Chinese tradition that emphasizes spirituality over reality.
“The point of Chinese art is a higher level of thinking,” said Mrs. Wright, who distinguished Mr. Ju’s art as “not just a pretty landscape to look at,” but rather a vehicle for introspection that transports a viewer “to another place.”
“This is often difficult to grasp if you’re not from the culture,” she told Global Atlanta.
Yet some critics agree that Mr. Ju’s unique approach deviates from strict tradition by often including modern aspects. Scenes from the 16-panel series “Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze,” which was completed in 2007, show the evolution of rural countryside to urban bridges and skyscrapers as the artist portrays an encroaching modern era.
Rodney Cook, president of the Millennium Gate Museum, who studied under Mr. Ju at Washington and Lee University, where the former professor enjoyed a 20 year stint, called the collection the “magnum opus” of the life of an artist with an “unusual soul.”
“Despite the fact of his torture and imprisonment, he still came out of it with a love of poetry, beauty, art and harmony,” observed Mr. Cook, who said that the exhibit showcases how the power of art can transcend war.
“The importance of his work cannot be overstated,” he told Global Atlanta.
Mr. Ju died in 2012 but his legacy still resonates in Georgia. Mr. Cook said the late professor was “instrumental” in aiding progressive causes in Atlanta during the civil rights movement and saving the historic Fox Theatre from a shutdown in the ’70s and ’80s.
“He was always trying to be accommodating within his style,” said Mr. Cook, who pointed out how Mr. Ju applied an “interesting American touch” when painting custom murals for Georgia civil leaders like former Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.
Even with this artistic assimilation, master artist I-Hsiung Ju always remained a “Chinese man living in America, as opposed to Chinese American,” whose tale is forever bound up with the shifting, political terrain of the 20th Century, his daughter revealed.
“He continued a tradition outside of China,” she said.
For more information on the exhibit, visit thegateatlanta.com.