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2014.06.12 Thu, by Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
History in the Making II: Sketches for Iconic Paintings

History in the Making II: Classic Sketches of Paintings

Hadrien de Montferrand Gallery Beijing (798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang, Beijing), May 24–July 15, 2014.

This exhibition, composed of sketches of famous paintings, presents the process in which the “Red Classics” oil paintings came into being from 1950s to the late 1970s. Their creators—Cai Liang, Lin Gang, Pang Tao, Quan Shanshi, Song Ren, Su Gaoli, Sun Cixi, Tang Xiaohe, Wang Shenglie, Xiao Feng, Yin Rongsheng, and Zhan Jianjun—were born more or less in the 1920s–1940s. Within the history of Chinese oil painting, they could be called the generation that bridged the present with an older generation of painters like Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian, as well as the generation slightly later, which includes Wu Zuoren, Ai Zhongxin, Dong Xiwen and Wang Shikuo. They were a generation of artists and art educators who promoted and, indeed, truly rooted oil painting in China with creative methods derived from Soviet Socialist Realism. Unlike their predecessors, their professional training was completed in the academic environment after liberation in 1949; some, like Lin Gang, Xiao Feng and Quan Shanshi, were even sent by the state in the ’50s and ’60s to study in a few key Soviet art academies. There was also the “Maksimov Training Course” at the Central Academy of Fine Art, with students like Zhan Jianjun. (1) Their work, therefore, reflected the official system relatively strongly.

Due to the international political situation in which China found herself at the time, from the moment the People’s Republic was founded, the general policy of development was affirmed as “emulating the Soviet Union in everything”. Certainly, art was no exception. In 1950, Renmin Meishu (People’s Art) published an article entitled “Realism is the Creative Method of Progressive Art” [现实主义是进步艺术的创作方法]. (2) Later, art and exhibition exchanges between the Soviet Union and China increased continuously. In the “Second Congress of Chinese Literature and Art Workers” of 1953, the then-assistant chief of the Cultural Bureau, Zhou Yang, stated: “The immense accomplishments of Soviet Socialist Realist art provides the best template for us to learn from. The learning must engage in creativity and cannot be a matter of plagiarizing and copying…We consider the methods of Socialist Realism as the highest standards of our artistic creation and criticism in its entirety.” (3) Against such a backdrop, on one hand, China sent talented students and teachers from art high schools to study in Soviet art academies; on the other hand, Soviet experts were also invited to open up training courses on Chinese campuses. Thereafter, the question of how to use Soviet Socialist Realist creative techniques like theatrical modeling, classical imagery and gray somber tones became the focal points for artists. And indeed, in this exhibition, the works displayed happen to have been produced, or extended, in such an environment.

In terms of time, these sketches were all finished within roughly two decades. Even though this does not constitute a huge expanse of time in terms of art history, as far as the development of modern and contemporary art in China is concerned, these two decades cutting across the Cultural Revolution also happened to witness how a local system of oil painting emerged.

The exhibition contains works that display heroic acts by the Communists against the Japanese invasion, like “Eight Heroines” (by Wang Shenglie; sketch created in 1957), as well as works that expressed a certain humanism, like “Dr. Bethune” (by Xiao Feng and Song Ren; color sketch completed in 1974). But the majority of the works— especially those created during the Cultural Revolution —portray great leaders and key revolutionary scenes, like “Joining of the Three Main Forces of the Red Army” at Jingangshan (by Cai Liang and Zhang Zini) and “Chairman Mao at the Peasant Movement Institute” (by Zhan Jianjun; color sketch on canvas; created in 1961 at the invitation of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution).

Xiao Feng, Song Ren, “Color Sketch No.1 For Doctor Bethune”, oil on canvas, 1974

Yet what is most worth savoring are still the differences between the sketches and the final versions. One example is Tang Xiaohe’s sketch for “Strive Forward in Winds and Tides” (1971), a propaganda oil painting completed during the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao loved swimming, and on May 31, 1956, he swam across the Yangtze in Wuhan for the first time (and left behind a famous poem as well). Thereafter, many cities along the Yangtze also held swimming events across the river. On July 16, 1966, an elderly Mao again swam in the Yangtze, leaving behind that classic photograph—the portrait of the leader swimming amid the currents being especially pregnant with meaning as having happened a mere two months before the Cultural Revolution broke out. (4) Later, July 16 was designed—for a while—as “National Swimming Day”. At one point, large numbers of prints, stamps, songs and so forth emerged with the theme of “striving forward with Chairman Mao in winds and tides”, while as the initial work in this vein, Tang Xiaohe’s propaganda painting was widely republished in important publications like the People’s Daily and People’s Liberation Daily; it was also turned into an important political propaganda poster. More importantly, the theme of these works incorporated the idea of “nurturing successors to the Revolution” (5) in order to convey the overall idea that the Cultural Revolution was a mass movement that would be passed on, one generation after the other.

Tang Xiaohe, “Sketch For Strive Forward In Winds And Tides”, charcoal on paper

Tang Xiaohe, “Sketch For Strive Forward In Winds And Tides”(finished piece)

Faced with the task of creating a work with such a crucial theme, the artist certainly had to be circumspect and thorough, with each detail carefully weighed and pondered. For instance, in the sketch, the female figure third from the right wears a swimming costume with her right hand holding high The Quotations from Chairman Mao (the “Little Red Book”). Yet in the finished work, her right arm is only held half-way up, with elbows bent and the whole posture rushing forward. Exactly like the posture of holding up the “Little Red Book”, this pose equally signifies loyalty to Mao and a willingness to offer protection. In fact, it was not unfamiliar to viewers at the time, being as it were one of the standard poses of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Solely in terms of the composition (and certainly not the theme), the painting resembles “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818–1819) by the French painter Théodore Géricault. The pyramidal structures create a grand, monumental effect, but here, there can only be one tip of the pyramid—Mao’s right hand, held up high. This obviously was the result of the artist’s repeated reflection; the compositional structure can clearly be seen in the sketched lines, a detail impossible to discover in the finished painting. Thus, the artist may have encountered a problem: if the female figure, third from the right, had kept her hand high as in the sketch, it would have detracted from the overall layout and would have duplicated Chairman Mao’s gesture—which was a big taboo. The final pose in the finished painting does not conflict with the great leader—and more importantly, in terms of iconography, the posture expresses the same meaning as the original gesture of holding up the little red book; the symbolism was not diluted. In all this, we can see the care the artist took in the work.

Furthermore, in the finished work, the artist also added a boy with a lifesaver or life ring, something also missing in the sketch. The lifesaver signified “protection” or “aid”, and the boy with the blue lifesaver is the one physically closest to Mao in the painting. What is more, aside from Mao, the boy is the only figure who looks straight ahead from the painting. With his age much younger than the rest, this gaze also reinforces the message that the revolution will have its successors.

“History in the Making II” also displays a few works produced after the Cultural Revolution. Though they still express themes around politics and leaders, there is nonetheless a little more lyricism and poetry to them. Lin Gang’s “Poems on the Long March” (1977) presents Mao Zedong’s poetic qualities; on the picture plane, his color sketch betrayed a more expressive use of color and a more carefree use of the brush. This constitutes a marked contrast with the “Red, Clear, and Bright” style of portraying leaders during the Cultural Revolution. Su Gaoli’s “Indelible Memories” (color sketch in 1977; final painting completed with Du Jian and Gao Yaguang in 1979) portrays the scene on April 5, 1976, when crowds gathered to mourn the death of Premier Zhou Enlai. With the multiple viewpoints almost akin to graphic novels and with melancholic, somber tones, the artists throw into relief a historical event which symbolized a changing political climate and shifting psychology of the people. The painting also appears to have foreshadowed the “Scar” art of the Southwest a few years later, a movement which mused on and contemplated the Cultural Revolution.

In viewing these sketches and then revisiting the classic works, more may be gleaned for interpretation. On the other hand, these works may also enable viewers to rid themselves of long-term prejudices against politicized Socialist Realist works. Though the artistic creation of the era cannot help but converge, to a high degree, in terms of style or theme, this did not mean artists had no room for creativity. On the contrary, amid such a peculiar age when politics determined all, their artistic composition perhaps had to be more discerning and imaginative. What these sketches show are the processes by which they thought, pondered, ruminated, and yes, even entangled themselves in the prerogatives facing them. Leading into such an area of history—an age not even that distant—the works presented to viewers are not necessarily historic works; but they do record a certain history of creation, thereby offering important references for the way we understand the visual culture of the era.

(1) The Maksimov Training Class: On February 29 1955, Konstantin M. Maksimov, a professor at the V. Surikov Art Institute in the Soviet Union, was sent to China as a political appointee to undertake painting education. As the first such expert to come to Beijing, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing conducted an “advanced painting course”.

(2) Lu Peng, 20 Shiji Zhongguo Yishu Shi (A History of Art in 20th Century China), Peking University Press, 2006, p. 451.

(3) Zhou Yang’s speech. See the website “Zhongguo Wenlianwang”: http://old.cflac.org.cn/wdh/cflac_wdh-2th_Article-02.html (accessed on May 29, 2014).

(4) On May 16, 1966, the Central Committee of the Communist Party passed the “Circular of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China” (on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution)(also known as the “May 16 Circular”), which signaled the official start of the Cultural Revolution.

(5) On August 3, 1964, the People’s Daily issued an editorial piece entitled “Nurturing and Training Up Tens of Millions of Proletariat Successors” (培养和造就千百万无产阶级革命接班人).

Cai Liang, “Sketch for Joining the Three Main Forces of the Red Army”, pencil on paper

Zhan Jianjun, “Color Sketch for Chairman Mao in the Peasant Movement Institution”, oil on canvas

Su Gaoli, “Color Sketch for Chairman Mao,Premier Zhou and The Leader Zhu”, oil on paper

Su Gaoli, “Color Sketch No.1 for Indelible Memories”, oil on paper, 1977

Su Gaoli, “Color Sketch No.2 for Indelible Memories”, oil on paper, 1977