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A New Era of Art essay

A New Era of Art essay

by Yi E, Researcher, National Art Museum of China, Beijing

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 1949, Chinese history turned a new page. It was also a new horizon for Chinese art, and the artworks produced at this time were vivid visual documents that recorded China's development.

A New Horizon: Chinese Contemporary Art includes 76 representative works from the past 60 years, which provide a window into the development of Chinese contemporary art. The exhibition is divided into three sections:

New China, 1949–1977

In the early years of the People's Republic of China, Chinese artists embraced the construction of New China. They took Mao's dictum 'Serving the people, serving the politics' as their motto, and their works reveal proud and happy workers and farmers. During this period, Chinese artists adopted 'socialist realist' modes of expression to depict the new face of China.

Group Photo at Tiananmen
Group Photo at Tiananmen, Sun Zixi, 1964.
Oil on Canvas, 155cm x 294cm. National Art Museum of China.

Chinese painting went through a series of transformations after 1949. Chinese painting had traditionally depicted the world in ideological rather than realist terms, and artists, often working in seclusion, were seen as separated from the real world. Now, art was being produced to serve the new political era, and took for its subject workers, peasants and soldiers. In terms of formal language, Chinese painting began to borrow painting techniques from Western realism. Chinese art began to represent and reflect the transformation of New China.

Before the founding of the People's Republic of China, landscape and 'flower-and-bird' paintings had been the most popular styles, expressing the philosophy that man is an integral part of nature, and a desire to be secluded from the rest of the world. After 1949, these styles lost their appeal, because they could not depict reality. In the mid-1950s, landscape painters and flower-and-bird painters began to search for ways in which they could combine their painting styles with this new desire to depict the real world. Artists, aspiring to eulogise New China, went out into the world to gain real life experiences to inform their art.

Even Chinese painters of the older generation, such as Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong, were inspired by the new times, and their works glowed with new splendour. Qi Baishi, whose works of art were appreciated by people from all walks of life, was included on a list of 'world cultural celebrities' in the 1950s. His flower-and-bird paintings combine intellectualism and rusticity, making him a master of his generation. Huang Binhong, in his later works, displays both a mastery of painterly skills, and a rich and sincere spirituality.

Flowers on Yandang Mountain
Flowers on Yandang Mountain, Pan Tianshou, 1962.
Ink and Wash, 150.8cm x 395.6cm. National Art Museum of China.

Other traditional landscape painters began to develop their styles to reflect the changing mood of China. Pan Tianshou eschewed the subtlety of traditional painting styles and developed a forceful and unique style. In his masterpiece, Flowers on Yandang Mountain, he adapted landscape and flower-and-bird painting techniques, combining ink-and-wash and oil painting styles with strong lines and bold colours.

Qian Songyan joined the Jiangsu Working Group of Traditional Chinese Painting organised by the Jiangsu Artists Association and embarked on a three-month journey to experience life and paint from these experiences. In the 1960s, after this ambitious pilgrimage, he created many landscape paintings that reflected the new Chinese society, including Changshu Farmland and Red Rock. He is seen as representative of the 'New Jinling Painting School', which advocated innovative landscape painting.

Ducks in Autumn
Ducks in Autumn, Lin Fengmian, 1960.
Ink and Wash, 69cm x 69cm. National Art Museum of China.

Lin Fengmian's landscape, flower-and-bird and still life paintings, which combine both Chinese and Western elements, were perfected in the 1950s. His paintings broke away from traditional forms to present a more accurate depiction of the landscape, imbued with an oriental poetic sensibility. In this way, a painting of birds in the night sky also represents the artist's deep personal feelings of loneliness. Lin's poetic expression influenced many younger generations of painters.

Realistic Chinese ink-and-wash figure painting thrived in the political climate of the mid-1950s. These paintings typically extolled the Communist party and workers, peasants and soldiers and reflected, in their literal and detailed style, the spiritual outlook of the broad masses of the people building New China. Consequently, they were extremely popular with the general public at that time.

These paintings absorbed the techniques of Western realism and were seen as a breakthrough in the development of traditional Chinese ink-and-wash figure painting.

In 1954, Zhou Changgu, an important artist of the 'New Zhejiang School of Chinese Figure Painting', travelled to the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, north-western China, and then Tibet, where he painted Two Lambs. The picture celebrates life through the chaste girl and the newborn animals. Produced in black ink with a touch of colour, the simplicity and spontaneity of the painting reveals the artist's extraordinary ability. In 1955, Two Lambs won a gold medal at the International Painting Competition of the Fifth World Youth Festival, and was quite influential at that time.

Snow in the Wilderness
Snow in the Wilderness, Huang Zhou, 1955.
Ink and Wash, 73.4cm x 117cm. National Art Museum of China.

In the same year, Huang Zhou had a chance meeting with a group of geological explorers and their camels in Golmud, Qinghai province. Deeply impressed by dozens of robust camels and the energy and youth of the geological exploration team, he painted Snow in the Wilderness. The angle from which the artist paints the picture presents the geologists as heroes fearlessly marching on in the face of hardship. The painting techniques Huang adopted were quite innovative at the time, and this painting won a gold medal at the International Modelling and Practical Art Exhibition of the Sixth World Youth Festival in 1957.

Oil painting, which was originally introduced from Europe, was accorded great importance by the government and artists after the People's Republic of China was founded. It was seen as an ideal medium for presenting revolutionary historical themes. Artists enthusiastically embraced these new realistic styles to depict the construction of New China.

Ai Zhongxin's magnificent landscape, Road to Urumqi, was created in 1954, after Ai spent some time with the Lanzhou-Xinjiang Railway engineering team in Wushaoling, western China. It depicts the strenuous working conditions in the imposing and precipitous Qilian mountains after the heavy May snowfalls.

Pan Shixun's Walking on the Road also drew on the theme of road construction. This painting depicts young Tibetan construction workers embracing their role in building a new socialist Tibet.

Dong Xiwen's Liberating the Ancient Land shows Tibetan farmers enthusiastically ploughing the land. The title of the painting has a double meaning: the tilling of the soil, and the liberation of Tibet.

Sculptors at this time also chose the styles of revolutionary realism to express historical revolutionary themes. Pan He's Hard Times is a very important representative work in the history of Chinese fine arts, and embodies the optimistic spirit of the revolution.

The Cultural Revolution was an extraordinary period in Chinese history and deeply affected Chinese art. Artists were urged to serve the political imperative, and works of art began to portray workers, peasants and soldiers as heroic figures, combining revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.

Zhou Shuqiao's oil painting Spring Breeze and Willow is a representative work of this period.

Spring Breeze and Willow
Spring Breeze and Willow, Zhou Shuqiao, 1974.
Oil on Canvas, 122cm x 190cm. National Art Museum of China.

The main figures in the painting are young educated people sent from cities to the countryside for re-education.

From 1968 until 1975, more than a hundred million young educated people left cities and went to the countryside and border regions to carry out revolutionary construction work. They became a popular subject for artists.

The bright colours and strong light in Spring Breeze and Willow emphasise the positive emotions in the painting and the title refers to new beginnings and the desire of these young intellectuals to embrace this new life.

View a slideshow of artworks from the New China period


New Thinking, 1978–1999

After the reform and opening up of China that started in 1978 under leader Deng Xiaoping, new ideological trends began to emerge in the development of Chinese art. Artists were influenced by a huge increase in their exposure to Western contemporary art. They broke free from purely realistic styles and were encouraged to experiment in modernist art practices, and also began to re-examine traditional forms of art. The combination of the spiritual expression of traditional Chinese painting with Western modes of abstraction and expressionism created a dynamic and innovative style of Chinese art during this period.

Oil painting began to evolve in exciting ways. Artists experimented with Western techniques at the same time as they reflected on history, and various ideological trends emerged. In the late 1970s, Chinese people started to question the Cultural Revolution, and 'Scar Art' became the representative movement.

Youth, He Duoling, 1984.
Oil on Canvas, 150cm x 186cm. National Art Museum of China.

Cheng Conglin's Snow, XX 1968 is perhaps the most important example of the genre. In it, Cheng, using a critical realist approach, depicts a fictional street fight, set in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution. By underscoring the cruelty and stupidity of the event the painter shows his criticism of that period of history.

Another representative work of Scar Art is He Duoling's Youth, which portrays a young educated woman who has been sent from the city to the countryside for re-education. The subject of this painting, confused about the current situation and what her future holds, can be seen as representative of that generation of educated young people who were sent to the countryside.

During this period, artists broke away from previous stylised techniques of expression and began to produce epic works of inspirational appeal. Red Star Over China, a large-scale history painting by Shen Jiawei, is composed of six panels and portrays 124 people, of which 102 represent real figures in Chinese revolutionary history, including Chinese revolutionary leaders such as Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of ideological trends and painting styles gained popularity in artistic circles. These included 'local realism', which aims to represent the culture and traditions of rural life, 'neoclassicism' introduced from Europe, and 'expressionism', 'surrealism' and 'hyperrealism' that borrowed ideas from Western modernism.

Traditional Chinese ink-and-wash painting also underwent great change in this period. Pure realist styles and traditional brushwork techniques were re-examined, and Chinese painting began to take on a completely new look, openly borrowing ideas from Western art. The subject of the painting no longer drove the artistic technique, and artists began to pay attention to the noumenon of art. Wu Guanzhong's work, Spring Snow, uses large ink spots and rhythmic lines to create a semi-abstract expression of mountains covered by spring snow. In doing so he combines the Western painting language of formalism with the brushstrokes of traditional Chinese freehand painting.

Landscape, Lu Yushun, 1994.
Ink and Wash, 184cm x 143cm. National Art Museum of China.

Many works of this time used melting spring snow for their subject.

For example, Revival, painted by Song Yugui and Feng Dazhong, uses a light and elegant painting technique to depict ice and snow melting in early spring. It also expresses the painters' elation at breaking through traditional artistic boundaries.

Ma Shulin's Geese and Lu Yushun's Landscape, which also highlight the importance of formalism, were painted with exquisite lines and subtle colour to express the rhythm of nature.

German expressionism also attracted a large number of Chinese painters with its strong and subjective symbolism. Artists could now express themselves in uninhibited ways, and expressive ink paintings were created in large numbers. Rather than mimicking physical reality, artists adopted a deformed and exaggerated painting language to express their subjective feelings.

Taihangshan Steel Wall, painted by husband-and-wife team Yang Lizhou and Wang Yingchun in 1984, is an important artwork in this genre. This painting, which was awarded a gold medal at the Sixth National Arts Exhibition, is considered to be a masterpiece and was a breakthrough in the creation of the artists' unique style. The group of revolutionary leaders appear to have been carved out of the mountains, symbolising the resilience of the Chinese people.

Li Laoshi's ironically titled Lotus Pond without Lotus Buds is an important expressionist flower-and-bird painting. The lotus has always been a popular subject for traditional Chinese painters, as a romanticised and pure bloom emerging from the muddy pond. Li uses dark ink, scattered lines and thick composition to depict lotuses in various states: blooming, withered, fluttering in the wind — the lotuses truly reflect the painter's mood.

View a slideshow of artworks from the New Thinking period

New Century, 2000–2009

Since 2000, against the backdrop of globalisation, Chinese art has embraced international trends. Chinese artists' knowledge of world culture has rapidly increased. They have used this new global outlook to combine traditional Chinese artistic practices with Western art styles to create new, energetic and experimental forms of art that reveal the vitality, colour and multiculturalism of China today.

Breathing No. 30
Breathing No. 30, Liu Renjie, 2008.
Oil on Canvas, 140cm x 195cm. National Art Museum of China.

In the new century, Chinese ink-and-wash paintings have continued to display strong revolutionary awareness as well as a spirit of experimentation.

On the one hand, traditional Chinese painters are searching for a painting language that can convey all aspects of contemporary life with an expressive force.

On the other, they are devoting themselves to capturing the spirit of the times and protecting the artistic value of contemporary Chinese painting, in order to consolidate its place within the international art scene — globalisation has become the focus.

Traditional Chinese painter Liu Qinghe is a prominent figure in the use of contemporary ink-and-wash painting to reflect contemporary life. Skilled in expressing urban life, Liu vividly portrays the hopelessness of urban dwellers. His ink painting technique has broken through traditional constraints, and successfully portrays people's living conditions and mental states.

Oil painting has continued to proliferate in the new century, and realistic, expressive and abstract painting styles have flourished. Liu Xiaodong and his wife Yu Hong paint in a realistic style, portraying and critiquing daily life in modern China. Xu Jiang's work shows the influence of neo-expressionism, and he has created works that reflect the vicissitudes of history. Meng Luding's, Ding Yi's, and Li Lei's abstract styles reveal the contemporary painters' search for a pure painting language.

New English Calligraphy
New English Calligraphy, Xu Bing, 2006. Chinese Ink on Chinese Art Paper, 286cm x 66cm x 2. National Art Museum of China.

During this period the development of new art media has been prominent. New media artists, such as Miao Xiaochun, have applied emerging technologies to express their artistic thoughts and depict modern life. In addition, as artists began to combine various media and materials, the boundaries between different types of art have merged, making traditional art classifications no longer important. The application of varied materials in these artworks has not only broken through existing artistic boundaries but has also created a currency in these works. Shang Yang and Wang Huaiqing have made exciting achievements in this field.

New English Calligraphy, a series of works produced by Xu Bing, is innovative in a different way, presenting the Western alphabet in the style of traditional Chinese calligraphy. The boundary between sculpture and installation art has also become ambiguous.

Artists are now free to mix materials in any way they please, which allows them to create works of strong artistic expression. However, Li Xiangqun's Marching on the Road is a sculpture that uses traditional techniques. Li's hyperrealistic depiction of Chinese leader Mao Zedong is both imposing and elegant. But this sculpture endows the leader with human qualities, whereas previous sculptures of this kind portrayed the leader as a sacred figure.

Zhan Wang's series of sculptures entitled 'Rockery design' are representative of contemporary sculptural approaches. Zhan imitated the stones used in rockeries in traditional Chinese gardens but created them out of stainless steel, a material used in modern industry. Are the shining stainless steel rockery stones and the actual rockery stones used in classical gardens real or fake? The sculptures have, therefore, posed questions about tradition and modernism, nature and artifice, authenticity and forgery.

View a slideshow of artworks from the New Century period

After the People's Republic of China was founded, Chinese contemporary arts have been closely related to social reality in China. Works of art have echoed the age, and artistic impulse has been consistent with the rhythm of the times. As rich visual documents, contemporary art has vividly recorded the development of Chinese society. I firmly believe that, through these splendid works of contemporary art, Australian people can truly know the vitality and vibrancy of China today.

Yi E
Researcher, National Art Museum of China