Asia Society, September 5, 2008 – January 11, 2009
A collection of mostly Social Realist paintings about Mao and the Chinese Revolution, spanning the 1950s through the 1970s, is quite honestly nothing revolutionary to look at. But, like the Shroud of Turin, the history behind the image is what pulls together these never-before-exhibited works. In this Olympiad year, the current Ministry of Culture inside China was so touchy about loaning these still-forbidden images that this past January it pulled the plug on its pledge of 100 works. That left Melissa Chiu, Director of the Asia Society Museum, and guest curator Zheng Shengtian, managing editor of Yishu, a highly respected journal of contemporary Chinese art, who as an artist experienced that whole period firsthand, knocking on the doors of private collectors not beholden to any party bosses.
The power of politically charged art in the service of a revolutionary ideal meant to change 5000 years of history in a decade or two cannot be glossed over as just another ho-hum representation, especially not when you are looking at the real thing instead of its pop imitation. The art of the Cultural Revolution churned out an estimated 2.2 billion images of Mao, which daily assaulted and regaled the citizenry. The impact of these images in Asian and world culture cannot be underestimated. The fact that oil painting, not native to the Chinese canon, triumphed over traditional brush painting in the blink of an eye because the former was deemed anti-bourgeoisie is also something scholars can chew on for the next century.
The Asia Society took the extraordinary step of inviting as many of the original artists as it could find to speak about their work and the controlled and heartbreaking circumstances under which it was produced, thereby adding to the sense of real (art) history in the making.
The show is divided into six sections. Background and Context declares the emergence of a new visual culture. Art History and Politics shows the pervasive manipulation of a host of everyday items: Mao tchotchkes, magazines, newspapers and posters. Cult of Mao was a time, according to artist Chen Danqing, when you painted Mao and only Mao, or risk mandatory self-criticism, imprisonment or worse. To Rebel Is Justified introduces the 1966 Cultural Revolution ideology that destroyed the four olds: ideas, cultures, customs, and habits of the “exploiting classes.” Included in this section is part of the original sculpture “Rent Collection Courtyard,” which Cai Guo-Qiang most recently recreated in his spring show at the Guggenheim Museum. Based on a real incident occurring before the Cultural Revolution, its purpose was educational, replicating the former rent collection courtyard of Liu Wen-tsai, a tyrannical landlord of Tayi County, Szechuan Province in southwestern China. It’s another moot point since the ownership of private property was just reinstated in China last year.
Never Forget Class Struggle shows art from the time when older master painters, most notably brush painters, were criticized and paraded through the streets as “Bourgeoisie Reactionaries.” It highlights the first stirrings of artistic rebellion from the covert No Name Group, an amalgam of landscape painters inspired by two exhibits of traditional Japanese art which occurred around that time. Their canvases had to be tiny enough to be tucked into backpacks at a moment’s notice, resulting in quite small but dreamy and inspired works. The last section, Up To The Mountain, Down To The Villages, is named for the late 1960s “reeducation” program that mass-evacuated students to live among the peasants in the countryside, including MacArthur Fellow and current Vice Director of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Xu Bing, who remembers it as a formative time in his artistic process, when there was a paucity of anything but Soviet models to learn from. Shen Jiawei, a self-taught artist, survived in 1969 by becoming a “cultural worker.” Living in the countryside of Heijang Province, his subject matter was soldiers “Standing Guard For Our Great Motherland” (1974). This final section also contains the 2002 project from The Long March Gallery that traces the route of the original Long March.
Old revolution is also big business. The iconic painting “Mao Goes to Anyuan” by Liu Chunhua (1967) sold in 1995 at the Guardian Auction House for then record-breaking prices. The picture—actually an oil study, since the state-owned China Construction Bank refused to loan the original—shows for the first time Mao portrayed as a god, a decided shift from his earlier representations as a worker peasant, Liu says he “never considered painting from a religious perspective” but “[using] a lower perspective [I] placed the Chairman in the center of the composition.” Madame Mao happened to see it, liked it, and 900 million copies were instantly reproduced in every magazine and newspaper, a virtual visual monopoly. The most bizarre work is Li Zehao’s 1964 “Racing,” a simple painting of peasants harvesting wheat in the fields. You would think that would be no big deal, but during that politically charged era, rumors were flying that hidden in the wheat stalks as a secret agenda were coded calligraphy strokes attacking the Communist Party and supporting Chang Kai-shek. The artist had to hide the painting for years or face severe punishment. Talk about a real piece of work to die for.