Ruminating — Thoughts after visiting "Art and China’s Revolution"

I was born at the end of the Cultural Revolution (CR) in China. Like a typical single child in my generation, my understanding of CR could only come from other’s experience. The source, however, has not always been readily available for years. My parents have been silent about their roles and life in CR period. (They are more willing to tell me the suffering of starvation in the first three years of 1960′s.) What’s more, they have successfully shielded away from any possibility that I could have to get some stories from my relatives or their friends.

The young generation grew up in a vacuum of sterility. This official history books are shy about China’s past after 1949. In particular, the political turbulence and the national fever of the CR are totally eliminated as if the history has vapored in the air.

The intellectuals and artists, who had been become more active in the 80′s or 90′s, are getting older and producing less. Furthermore, the outputs are not even among different genre. The non-fiction novels and report-a-larges were popular in the late 80′s. In particular some biographies written by those who went to “Bei Da Huang” (i.e. Siberia-equivalent in China) amazed me in their determination, almost bordering stubbornness. But those authors were aware of the the great gap between the relative comfortable city life where they used to live and the barbarous no-where. Even though a lot of them eventually found the way out and went back to cities, their views have not always been negative: It was the period when their energy was the highest, the place where comradeship was wrought to last through hardship and where they may have their first love.

There are less movies about CR since it is a more accessible media compared to the intellectual-favored books. A lot of the movies, which could not pass the censorship, won awards abroad. But nothing is more scarce compared to the CR-related art during the post Cultural Revolution period. After all, movies and novels show a process or a period. Within it, violence and injustice can be mellowed down by romance, love or even happy endings. The paintings, which only capture a state of being or a particular moment, cannot find a middle ground to speak both the consciousness of the artist while passing the censorship of Culture Bureau.

Because of the scarce of reflective works, the current exhibition “Art and China’s Revolution” in Asia Society gives an introspection by showing the artworks from that period. I have not seen such an exhibition in China, and probably it will never happen in China during my life time. It was not pleasant, in fact excruciating because the artworks are neither true nor beautiful, yet they were created by the best artists of the country. I begin to ask: are they art?

Artistically, they were technically wonderful. Some of the oil paintings show the influence of Russian school in the way of depicting light and arranging subject matters. The Father, one of the most celebrated paintings in China, reminds me of Fechin with regard to light and color palette. But Fechin’s succinct brush strokes would be too avant-guade thus too Western for China.

However, what strikes me the most was most of the paintings were historical paintings and depict events and movement that led to the Cultural Revolution. In one example, a painting praised the fruit of the “Great Leap Forward” movement with Mao in the field of experimental wheat field. In another, Mao was with the coal miners including a female worker. These were painted by the same painters who, during the first three years of the 1960′s, read in starvation the news of new record of unit field production from the newspaper daily, the same painters who lost their wok because all irons went to some backyard steel furnace. They became waste since regular people didn’t know the metallurgy, but the waste was still counted as the national steel production in order to catch up with Britain in 15 years.

Have the artists lost their consciousness to become one of the feverish or were they doing it because that’s the only way to survive? I don’t know. But it is shameful to look at them as Chinese. If Germans can spent years self-criticizing their past in WW2, why can’t Chinese, from the top to the individual, look straight back at that period and most importantly make sure the mistake will not happen again? Milan Kundera said: The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone.

It is true that that “Da Zi Bao” (big character posters) are more rebellious and violent. But when artworks, in the disguise of surface beauty and technical excellence, stop to speak truth from the heart: It is a revolting product: it shrills people not only because artists behind the canvas were institutionalized, but also because the arts became part of the machine.

Ironically, in those propaganda paintings, there were no individuality except Chairman Mao and other leaders. They looked perfect, happy, young and vivacious. Their hands point forward or raise up as if the underlining movement was getting higher and faster without a check.

Now as China gets stronger and bigger, there is another wave of extreme patriotism national wide. They broke in and vandalized French-owned chain stores because the Olympic torch relay was disturbed (by Chinese dissidents) in France. There is a growing anomosity toward the western and several books are published with simily titles like “China can say NO”, “China has to say NO” etc. The government silently approves and assist the trend because Chinese are too easy to confuse the love of motherland with the love of government. And again the youth is at the front of the new trend. They have marched in the official sponsored demonstration, arms high and spirit higher.

This reminds me again Milan Kundera in the book “Unbearable Lightless of the Being”: Behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.

History should not be repeated, it must not be. And Chinese, especially the young generation should ruminate the past, even if it is revolting.

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Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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