How an outsider became one of China’s biggest exports

Written by by Tina Tran, CNN The life of Otto von Dutch was shrouded in mystery for decades, but his works and name were seldom unfamiliar to art lovers around the world. The seascape…

How an outsider became one of China's biggest exports

Written by by Tina Tran, CNN

The life of Otto von Dutch was shrouded in mystery for decades, but his works and name were seldom unfamiliar to art lovers around the world.

The seascape painter and printmaker captured everything from the buildings and players of Venice to the emotion and night sky of Borneo.

Von Dutch’s name is also associated with the smog that cloaked much of China for decades and led to the designation of the “Great Leap Forward,” an era of unrestrained growth that resulted in millions of deaths.

As artist Rodney Graham notes in his book “The Untold Story of Otto von Dutch,” the artist’s career was always affected by “an extraordinary, absolute precocity.”

He also “essentially devoured the world,” Graham says, collecting as much art and literature as he could. In the 1950s and ’60s, he “became a sensation” in Hong Kong before forging an even more lucrative career in Japan, where he began to earn tens of millions of dollars.

Now, a book based on more than 50 interviews with his family and friends — including childhood friend Hans Rudolf von Dutch — is shedding light on a man whose stories continued to be retold even decades after his death in 1967.

His art was relatively unknown in his lifetime, perhaps because the crowd of photographers and journalists following the artist were himself absorbed by the bustling scenes they captured.

While many of the old newsreels give only a brief glimpse of his canvases, a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston offers a look into the process of making the artist’s works — and to how he mastered the art of dealing with and collecting what he saw.

Hans Rudolf von Dutch, 1919-1965

The museum’s extensive collection of English, German and Japanese prints by the artist is highlighted in the exhibition. A few of his works can be seen in an abandoned pigsty near the artist’s home, long after the man left to join the manufacturer of bright and colorful clothes — the company was renaming itself the Denmans.

Rarely shown are some of his early works, including a “Pandora’s Box” in which scores of orange and red gems hang in accordant fashion. The exhibition also includes a book of sketches from the 1990s documenting the artist’s relationship with his boyhood friend Hans Rudolf.

Originally a copyist, Hans Rudolf soon came to understand the power of the artist to capture the emotions of characters he photographed. In one memorable moment, Theo described the encounter between his mother and his friend Hans Rudolf when the photographer visited him in 1944.

“She wanted to see the young man,” Theo recounts. “He left the house without saying goodbye. He got in the car and shot a few pictures. She called me.”

The artist’s work held a remarkable resonance for a generation of young couples in East Asia, who as a result named their children after him — Otto’s daughter Pepper was born in 1953.

Born in 1910, Otto’s father had abandoned the family, leaving his mother to raise three children in the southern German town of Altenberg. That’s the town where the artist’s aunt had named the family.

The painter’s early education, by an Austrian grandfather, was so poor that he was also involved in a short apprenticeship as a janitor.

When the Great Depression struck, Otto was enrolled in a boys’ boarding school in Dortmund. While there, he started collecting works of Manet, Puccini and Picasso and was urged to start painting. In the 1940s, he went to his uncle in China and began buying books on international travel.

Upon his return, the artist looked to “old Europe” for inspiration but grew dissatisfied with the lack of photographs and printmaking equipment. So, he traveled to the United States where he found a husband, a wife and three sons.

With his jet-setting lifestyle, his business success and sheer determination, von Dutch is famous for nothing else. There’s no evidence that he was even born in China, making him one of the rare artistic emigrants to return to the motherland.

His story not only helped shape China in the early 1950s — as writer Kazuo Oshima points out, his work by and large showed a unique love for the country that is starkly absent from today’s top foreign artists.

Yet the artist himself was unconcerned about his legacy.

“I’m sorry,” he once said. “I do not feel as though my work could be the lasting link between Asia and Europe. I feel that my life is much more important than that.”

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