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The Artful Traveler: When The Sun Was Red

Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh


    Mao outdid the Soviets when it came to socialist-realism.  His dictate, "art for the people," created a kind of dark ages for  artists. From  roughly the 1950's to the1970's, artists were told what they could and could not paint. It's all precisely chronicled in  "Art and China's Revolution,"  a must-see show at Asia Society in New York City.  
     Artist Han Xin , at the show's opening  said he was 16 in 1971.
    "There  were no schools anywhere in China, they were all closed," he recalled. "Children whose parents were arrested  were sent to the countryside (for agrarian re-education). About all you were permitted to paint was Mao's portrait, but I tried to explore. I had heard about  Picasso and Matisse but never  seen their paintings."
    As Xin described his experiences during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, he stood before his painting "Sinner,"  a very non-revolutionary, non–socialist style painting,  memorable for its rough brush strokes and dark colors, risky practices during that time. Xin, like some of the artists in this show, were interested in pushing boundaries. It's a small painting, like many  counter- revolutionary works in this show,  all the more easy to hide from the authorities.  
    Artist Chen Danqing  wrote in the show's catalog that  Mao's image was the only thing in the world "you knew you could paint at the time. I felt   no difference between {me and} Renaissance painters —they painted Jesus. I painted Mao."

["Chairman Mao Inspects the Guandong Countryside," by Chen Yanning, courtesy of Sigg Collection]

    During the Cultural Revolution very few subjects  — certainly not landscapes or ink painting — were considered legitimate for art. The Chinese outdid Soviet-style realism, always portraying Mao as hero, surrounded by smiling  farmers and happy peasants. On the other hand,  many paintings of  the military show soldiers with grim almost menacing expressions, weighted down by their  heavy responsibilities.      
    When co-curator Zheng Shengtian spoke with artist Liu Chinhua  (b.1944) about his  1969  painting of Mao as a young man, "Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan," the artist  discussed the initial objections to his work. The authorities didn't approve of depicting Mao as a solitary figure rather than a leader surrounded by the masses. Another criticism  was that Chairman Mao was thought of as the Red Sun. Consequently, he had to be shown in bright sunlight rather than the artist's original  cloudy sky. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, dubbed it a model painting and ordered a print. Eventually it was  reproduced some 900 million times.Cultofmao_01.03

    This compelling show of oil paintings, ink paintings, sculptures, prints and posters (and an early copy of  Mao's Red Book with a blue binding) yet again reinforces that art illuminates a  society. To understand ancient China, you need to  appreciate the role of calligraphy and ink painting, all scorned as bourgeois during the Cultural Revolution. In 1971, defying the authorities, an important ink painter, Shi Lu, painted  "Pines at Hua Shan." Pines traditionally represented the noble spirit of the intellectual.  For defying authorities with his expressive brushwork and individual style, Shi Lu was ostracized, tortured, sent to a labor camp, and suffered many physical and mental  hardships from which he never recovered.  
    Mao's  powerful state-sponsored and state-defined definition of what was art still reverberate  in China today. As Asia Society Museum Director and co-curator Melissa Chiu has often emphasized, it's necessary to understand the impact of  Mao's revolution on artists who lived during the Cultural Revolution as well as successive generations,  right up to our own time. One glance at the 10-foot high Mao jacket sculpture on the Park Avenue median at 70th Street by  contemporary Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo is a symbol of  Mao's  legacy. His  iconic status   continues to play a role among  Chinese  artists working today who again are struggling with new  economic and political realities.   

"Art and China's Revolution;" Asia Society and Museum, 725 Park Avenue,  on view   through Jan 11, 2009

["Strive Forward in Wind and Tides," by Tang Xiaohe, collection of T.Z. Chang]

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