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Ma Jir-Bo was a Chinese realist artist and oil painter. He is praised for his great portraitures, highly realistic texture-feeling still lifes and memory-rekindling landscapes of Hong Kong all that made him a leading oil painter of his era. Ma is regarded as 'the legacy of Classic Western Masters in the East'. During his career, he created roughly 300 oil paintings, some 50 watercolours, as well as some traditional Chinese ink paintings and Chinese calligraphies.
Ma's father was married to Madam Zhu Yu-zhen and Ma was their son. Not long after Ma's birth the family moved to Hong Kong where Ma first learned to paint Chinese ink paintings with Gao Jian-fu (Chinese Painter, 1879–1951) at the age of seven. At the age of thirteen he was first introduced to Li Tie-fu (1870–1952) and Ma had his important apprenticeship on Western painting with him from 1949 to 1950. During the apprenticeship, both Ma and Li Tie-fu lived together in a squatter in Diamond Hill, Kowloon, Hong Kong. As a patriotic artist who sold his paintings to raise fund to support the Nationalist Revolution led by Dr Sun Yat-sen, Li Tie-fu parted his patriotic ideology to Ma. By his influence, Ma was a loyal supporter of the Communist Revolution and he adopted Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, 1830 to paint Just to Survive, 1955 to describe his approval of the Communist regime. Some of his earlier paintings are highly patriotic and political, such as Xia Jia Bang, 1961 and The Sea of Blood, 1961 ; as well as having a strong sense of social justice. A Christian Nun, 1966 and A Medical Doctor, 1971 are paintings of a social justice theme.
After Li Tie-fu returned to the Mainland in the summer of 1950, Ma moved to Cheung Chau to study the way to paint in different light settings. He lived there for a few years before returning to the Hong Kong Island in 1966. Ma acquired his first student Wong Chung-Man.
In 1964, Ma's hidden life in Cheung Chau was discovered by the editor of the South China Morning Post and the article he wrote attracted the attention of the then Diplomat and Banker of Thailand Mr Chali Yongsunthon, who later became a close supporter of Ma and acquired some of this works and later brought them back to Thailand.
Probably disappointed by the happening of the Cultural Revolution and his abhorrence of violence which occurred both in the Mainland and in Hong Kong, politics and social justice themes were not found in his post 1971 paintings.
Continuously through his life, Ma was dedicated to realism. By hanging An Artist Painting his Father, circa 1968 at the center of his art studio, he intended to remind all his students to refrain from abstraction. Probably influenced by Jean-François Millet, many of his portraits are of peasant farmers (cf. Peasant's Harvest, 1978), workers (cf. Old but Strong, 1963) and of ordinary people in lower social class (A Hooker Smooker's Resting Moment, 1976).
"Painting to reflect society" – had been attributed to his style of painting and that he would not paint what the public do not understand. In 1970, Ma married to Madam Tam Wai-Mun, Alice (born 1939) who was one of his art students and had learned paintings from him for over two years before their marriage. They had a son, Lawrence Yan-kwok (born 1970), who has not chosen art as his career but rather to become a barrister in Australia and later in Hong Kong. Ma acquired a number of students in the late 1960s and early 1970s, among them Wong Wen-san (Wang Yun-shan), Yeung Yick (Yang Yi), Chan Yan-fu (Chen Ren-fu) and Chung Yiu (Zhong Yau).
At the same time as Ma's own style matured in the 1970s, his health started to deteriorate. Suffering from a lung disease, he was always short of breath and was difficult to manoeuvre.
In 1977, Ma was selected as the represent the Hong Kong art community representative to attend the prestigious National Day celebration in Beijing on 1 October. Before that, Ma was commissioned to paint two large portraits: one of Chairman Mao Ze-dong and another of Chairman Hua Guo-feng by the then Director of Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong. At the National Day celebration, he was welcomed and greeted by Ye Jianying and Liao Chengzhi. The two portraits were hand-delivered by Ma to the Director in September 1977 and were displayed next to the national flag at the National Day celebration. They were never seen after 1977 and the whereabouts of the two portraits is a mystery now.
In the 1980s, his health further deteriorated and aggravated by the presence of kidney stones. Ma did not paint much and there were only two oil paintings produced in 1985. He died in the Queen Mary Hospital on December 8, 1985, aged 58, from the combination of his long ailing lung illness together with complication from a laser kidney stone surgery. He was survived by this mother, his wife and son.
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