Artists, Toe the Party Line

Written on September 7, 2008 by DeansTalk in Arts & Cultures & Societies

As published in the New York Times



It’s the morning after. The splashy fete that was the 2008 Olympics is yesterday’s news. We’re out of the Bird’s Nest and back into history, faced with the obvious question: What comes next? Party time in Beijing may be over, but a one-party rule is still firmly in place. New China is still, in significant ways, Old China.

Under that party’s auspices, a month ago, some 16,000 performers offered an awesomely dressed, drilled and illuminated paean to China’s cultural brilliance, past and present, as a global audience watched the Olympics opening ceremony.

Also under its auspices, beginning nearly half a century ago, uncounted millions of Chinese died from starvation and political violence, both the direct result of a utopian social movement that was intended, among other things, to rekindle China’s luster in the modern world.

And it is in light of such histories, near and far, that the important exhibition “Art and China’s Revolution” at Asia Society poses its own different but perfectly timed post-Olympics question: What came before?

The show itself is not perfect. At the last minute the Chinese government blocked some promised loans. (The Cultural Revolution is a sensitive topic during this Olympic year.) And curatorial ambition is constrained by lack of space. The ideas are big, the Asia Society galleries too small.

But these are minor factors. Several major, touchstone Cultural Revolution paintings are here: Chen Yanning’s “Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside” (1972), Chen Yifei’s “Eulogy of the Yellow River” (1972), Shen Jiawei’s “Standing Guard Over Our Great Motherland” (1973-74). And if their installation is uncomfortably tight, it evokes the claustrophobia-inducing social atmosphere that produced them. In short, everything needed to bring history to life is in place.

That history spans roughly the three decades following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. By that date Mao Zedong, a classical poet and calligrapher steeped in Western political thinking, had long since proved himself a charismatic leader. He had participated in the guerrilla campaigns known as the Long March. He had been instrumental in forming the new radically socialist government; this was his one indisputable triumph. He was also responsible for the traumatic developments that followed — the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution — in which social ideals were catastrophically distorted by top-down partisan politics.

Art was a huge part of this history, with an influence on everyday life inconceivable today. Put at the service of politics, it promoted ideas, shaped public emotion and acted as a force of moral persuasion. The painter Chen Danqing, active as a young artist during the revolutionary era, does not exaggerate when he says in the show’s catalog, “At the time I felt there was no difference between me and the Renaissance painters: they painted Jesus; I painted Mao.”

Mao’s image was indeed ubiquitous. And the first few years of the Cultural Revolution saw a concerted effort, led by volatile and anarchic youth groups like the Red Guard and other rebel factions, to deify him. In woodcut posters from the late 1960s his face radiates light. In a color print titled “Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan” (1969) he is a messianic matinee idol. In another, “Chairman Mao Inspects Areas South and North of the Yangtze River” (1968), he is a god surveying the China he rules from heaven.

Both prints originated as oil paintings. The painting for the first, by Liu Chunhua, was picked from an art school show by Mao’s wife and cultural minister, Jiang Qing. She ordered a print made, and hundreds of millions of copies eventually went into circulation.

The painting used for the second print was the work of three artists. A brilliant young painter named Zheng Shengtian was responsible for the cloud-strewn panoramic background, while two colleagues, Zhou Ruiwen and Xu Junxuan, did the figure of Mao. What may look like a friendly collaboration was, however, an example of political discrimination in action.

Mr. Zheng — who organized “Art and China’s Revolution” with Melissa Chiu, director of Asia Society Museum — had had run-ins with government authorities. Not only did his painting style stray from prescribed models, but he had also protested the persecution of fellow artists and teachers by the Red Guard. He was briefly imprisoned in 1966 and subjected to humiliating sessions of “self-criticism.” When he returned to painting, it was with restrictions. He could do the landscape in “Chairman Mao Inspects Areas South and North,” but the figure of the great leader himself was entrusted to artists with sterling ideological credentials.

Yet one look at the picture reveals that the party-approved aesthetic was a hybrid affair. Earlier in the 20th century certain Western modernist art — Impressionism, Fauvism — had been widely admired in China. Its influence is present in Mr. Zheng’s landscape. After the founding of the People’s Republic, Russian socialist realism become the orthodox art style; it is evident in the idealized Mao figure.

And while traditional Chinese ink painting was out of favor as an elitist form, it is ever-present in art of the revolutionary era. In 1964 an ink and brush landscape by Li Keran passed muster because it includes tiny figures carrying red flags. A mural-size oil painting, “Chairman Mao Inspects Villages in Guangdong” (1971), by Chen Yanning is, thematically, an update on 17th-century imperial scrolls depicting rulers on surveillance tours of the provinces.

Only Western modernism remained under firm anathema, with a status comparable to “degenerate art” in Nazi Germany. Yet artists continued to practice it. Painters using the collective identity of No Name Group experimented with a wide variety of modernist styles but worked on an ultra-discrete scale. Almost all their paintings in the show are small enough to be carried in a backpack or hidden away in a desk drawer.

Despite restrictions and difficulties, the prospect for contemporary art in the People’s Republic was not uniformly bleak. Although many older, tradition-minded artists suffered terribly, for at least some artists of a younger generation the revolutionary era was a time of heady inspiration.

The conceptual artist Xu Bing, now an international star, remembers it this way. Born in 1955, he was sent, like many other school-age urban youths in the 1970s, to the countryside for “re-education,” meaning to live among peasants and laborers whom he otherwise would never have known.

In a catalog interview he recalls this time as the best years of his life, when the ideal of social harmony, on which the revolutionary movement was premised, became a reality. “It was all about interactions between human beings, and you could really feel the goodness of humanity, and people transcending politics, hierarchy and class.”

His tender graphite sketches of the people he lived among confirm these sentiments. And it seems significant that recently, after years of living in the United States, he returned to China to take the position of vice director at one of the country’s leading art schools, the Central Academy of Art in Beijing.

Mr. Xu is far from being the only artist to carry the live memory of the revolutionary era into China’s 21st-century art. The last gallery in the exhibition — too sparsely installed, as it happens — is devoted to an artists’ collective with the historically resonant name the Long March Project. Started in 2002, its goal was to retrace Mao’s original, arduous trek across China, but this time in the form of a series of site-specific history-probing art events.

Although the project was supposed to last for only three years, it is still in progress in a postmodern, postindustrial, post-Olympics China that Mao himself might barely recognize.

But, then again, he might. What, after all, are Olympics — in any country, in any year — but a form of nationalist propaganda on a colossal scale? What, fundamentally, were the Beijing Olympics but a monumental exercise in social control? Like the “history” paintings of the 1960s, with their programmed uplift and operatic heroics, the Olympics pageant was a populist confection that obscured the unsavory realities of ruling party power: repression in Tibet, suppression of popular dissent, culpability for the Tiananmen massacre of 1989.

So the history — riveting, puzzling, depressing, exhilarating — of culture and politics in China goes on. The Asia Society show, with its fine catalog, gives a vivid sense of its complexities, past and present, in nutshell form. From this modest but explosive kernel, a thousand more exhibitions will surely grow.

“Art and China’s Revolution” continues through Jan. 11 at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street, asiasociety.org.


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