Not long ago, I was telling a curator of Chinese art that the next time he was anywhere near New York state, he had to meet An Ho, who had trained with Pu Ru, one of the last scholar-artists of China. This caught his attention — but there was so much more to be said about An Ho and little did I know that time was running out. An Ho died a week ago at the age of 88. She was dressed and ready to walk upstairs to the studio she shared with her daughter, artist Lalani Nan. It is painful to contemplate that her brushes lie still. Her cherished books of poetry sit, anticipating their morning read. Lengths of unpainted silks stay furled. Ink stone awaits its daily drops of water.
An Ho’s journey began in Beijing at a time when Nationalists and Communists were battling over control of China. Over time, the journey would entail seeking refuge in the countryside, fleeing to Taiwan, emigrating to Guam, moving to the US mainland. But one thing never changed. Her love of painting. “From the time I became conscious I loved to draw, but father was careful about choosing a teacher. He preferred for me to paint freely rather than get the wrong instruction and ruin my life,” she said.
A newspaper editor in Nanching, An Ho’s father was forward-thinking — he fought for women’s rights, served as senior member in a revolutionary movement and more than once ran afoul of the authorities. But when it came to art, he was a stickler for tradition. It was not until An Ho was 17 that he found a teacher suitably untainted by Western styles and techniques. His choice was Pu Ru, cousin of the emperor and scholar-artist, one of the last China would have.
Under Pu Ru’s tutelage, An Ho studied philosophy and focused on calligraphy, first in Nanjing and then, escaping the turmoil of China’s revolution, in exile in Taiwan. “Pu Ru usually got up around six and began writing calligraphy,” she told me. “The rest of us got up about an hour and a half later and started with the five books — four major works of Confucius and the I’Ching.” Around noon, An Ho prepared lunch with Mrs. Pu, then, having helped with household chores, sat down with the master. “We did exercises, I took notes on technique for painting and calligraphy, and that lasted all afternoon.” she says.
In Taiwan, An Ho also gained access to imperial treasures Chiang Kai-shek had brought with him in retreat, enabling her to study, copy and master the brushwork and techniques of Tang and Song dynasty artists.
Meeting her in 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, was, quite literally, an eye-opener. She taught me how to look at Chinese painting or, to be more precise, she redirected my attention, launching me on an ongoing journey. Not just as an artist and scholar, but as a person, too, she inspired me. She was refined and twinkly, enthusiastic and reflective, disciplined and spontaneous, detached and engaged.
Even though that curator will not get the chance to meet her in person and some would say her journey has now ended, An Ho lives on — through the memories many hold of her; through the impact she has made on artists and lovers of art; and, of course, through her paintings. Sitting at her white worktable, brush in hand, she worked within the dictates of the past masters to express her individual response to the world that unfolded outside and the wisdom she held and deepened within.
An Ho: Recent Paintings at China 2000 Fine Art, Sept 6 – 28, 2017
Sotheby’s “An Ho and her Poetical Work of Art,” August 2017
“A Brush with Greatness,” Christian Science Monitor, 11 July 2003
“In Georgia, an Enclave of Chinese Artistry,” WSJ, 7 Dec 2000 An Ho – ProQuest