Chinese painting stands witness to renewal of friendship

Monday, December 27, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 9:37 p.m. CST, Monday, December 27, 2010
Diane O'Hagan stands in the basement of Pickard Hall with a painting by Hu Boxiang, the father of her Chinese pen pal Hu Gengsheng. The painting was made in 1961 and received by O'Hagan about 30 years ago as a gift. She recently donated it to the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology.

COLUMBIA — For Diane O'Hagan, a painting is witness to her friendship with a Chinese pen pal that began more than 60 years ago.

This month, O’Hagan, 72, donated a watercolor by the Chinese artist Hu Boxiang to the Museum of Art and Archaeology at MU. She acquired the painting in the 1980s as the result of correspondence with a Chinese pen pal that began after World War II.


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In 1946, O’Hagan’s class at Versailles Elementary School donated supplies to the Red Cross to be sent to war refugees in China.

“We brought in washcloths, toothpaste, soap, basic things people needed, put them into little boxes along with a class list and sent them off,” the Columbia woman said. “They went to this family in Shanghai, and they sent back a letter and some drawings.”

O’Hagan said she thinks the family picked her to write back to because her maiden name, Diane Berry, was first on the list.

The letter introduced the Hu family, O’Hagan said. The correspondent, Hu Gengsheng, was a 15-year-old boy. He had one brother and four sisters, and his father, Hu Boxiang, was an artist in Shanghai.

Hu Gengsheng also included several sketches in his letter, one of which was of his family car, a 1946 Ford, the same kind the Berry family had.

“My dad said, ‘I don’t think they are poor refugees,’” O’Hagan said. “The Red Cross must’ve made a mistake.”

Despite the mix-up, O’Hagan wrote back. “I was only 9 at that time, and my parents had to help me with a lot of the writing,” she said.

The pen pal correspondence kept going for about two years, during which they exchanged many letters and gifts. Hu sent sketches he had drawn of O’Hagan and her brother, Bill Berry, as well as sketches of airplanes and muscular men.

“He really loved airplanes,” O’Hagan said. “Most of the airplanes he’s drawn are World War II ones. I’m guessing that’s the only ones he’s seen.”

Hu also sent popular magazines, pens and art ornaments, all of which O’Hagan has kept in a box. In exchange, O’Hagan sent him a school yearbook, Disney animation books and photos.

When the Communists started taking over China in 1948, O’Hagan and Hu lost contact. O’Hagan thought he perhaps had died in the political turmoil, she said.

However, a letter from China in 1979, 31 years later, renewed their friendship.

The four-page letter was sent to O’Hagan’s old school in Versailles, she said. The principal, though surprised, found O’Hagan’s mother, who later got in touch with O’Hagan.

“I was surprised and delighted,” O’Hagan said. “She brought the letter to me, and then we started writing again.”

Hu described what had happened to him. Because his family had been rich and painted Western art, his family had suffered during the Cultural Revolution, a radical reform in China in the 1960s.

“Much of what they had was confiscated by the government,” O’Hagan said. “The father’s paintings, photography, his own sketches, cameras and even the yearbook we sent him was taken because the government thought the content was obscene.”

In the following letters, Hu asked for another copy of the yearbook. He also made a list of things he desired, such as camera film, batteries and cassettes. O'Hagan also recorded her husband playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the piano.

“The government controls the customs, and it is very hard to acquire these items,” the letter read in Chinese. A friend helped her translate.

O’Hagan sent him the requested items. In exchange, in the early 1980s, Hu sent a 1961 watercolor painted by his father titled "Cormorants and Fishermen," which she decided to donate to MU a couple months ago.

“We decided there’s more to this painting than just belonging in our home,” she said. "It's a beautiful painting that should be displayed so people can enjoy."

“We are very pleased to have it,” said Alex Barker, director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology. “It is an important work of art that tracks across important historical periods. It is an ideal work for us.”

Hu Boxiang was an important Chinese artist, Barker said. Hu Boxiang began his work in the 1920s in Shanghai, doing advertising as well as more traditional fine art. His art is not widely known outside of China.

“The traditional artist's style is represented in this painting,” Barker said. “This artist's work is characterized by specific elements. For example, the way the tree branches are painted is distinctive. This particular work has one corner that shows wonderful sinuous leaves.”

The painting will be matted and framed, said Jeff Wilcox, curator of collections at the museum. It will go to a storage box upstairs, where it will live permanently.

“It might end up in exhibitions from time to time, such as a landscape show or Chinese painting show,” Wilcox said.

O’Hagan is happy the painting found a good place to rest.

“It’s really been fascinating,” she said of the correspondence. “And we are happy that the painting is in MU — it’s very close to us, and the painting will be saved and protected there."

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