Ma Zhensheng: Standing Firm on Production Work, 1966
The Chinese government has attempted to censor an exhibition about the Cultural Revolution opening next month at New York’s Asia Society, The Chinese government has refused to allow museums in China to lend works to what is expected to be the most significant show yet on this subject.
“Art and China’s Revolution” (5 September-11 January 2009) surveys three decades of Chinese art following Mao Zedong’s establishment of the republic in 1949, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the government controlled artist production. Exhibitions of photographs and posters have explored the politics and propaganda of Maoist China, but none has assembled ink and oil paintings, sketchbooks and prints by both underground and official artists, including the “model” paintings on which millions of social-realist posters were based. Historically significant pieces have made their way into Chinese museums where they have languished in storage, but when the Asia Society sought to borrow these long-hidden landmarks, the Ministry of Culture peremptorily refused.
“Initially we approached the various Chinese museums asking to borrow works, but none of them was permitted,” says Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum and co-curator of the show. “All had agreed to lend [at first],” she adds. “It was the Ministry of Culture that refused. We were only told unofficially by people in government the reason was because this was the year of the Olympics and the Cultural Revolution is a sensitive subject.” The Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, and the Chinese consulate in New York did not respond to our requests for comment.
The Asia Society was informed that none of the loans would be approved in January, only nine months before the exhibition was to open. “We made the decision to proceed because it was too important an exhibition,” says Ms Chiu. “This period of recent history has had an enormous impact on Chinese art and we want to help people to understand this. Had the Chinese museums been able to lend, we would have had more works,” she says, “although with 250 objects in the exhibition it has not affected our ability to show what actually happened during the period.”
Nearly 20 so-called “model” oil paintings as well as studies and other works have been borrowed from artists and private collectors based in China and Hong Kong. Additional loans were secured from universities and private collections in the US and Switzerland. The Sichuan Art Academy, which does not require central government authority to lend, sent part of a 1974 fibreglass version of the Rent Collection Courtyard, 1965, a widely disseminated sculpture of 114 life-size figures that portrays the exploitation of peasants by landowners.
The catalogue includes English translations of Mao’s influential Yanan talk on “Literature and Art”, speeches by his third wife Jiang Qing who presided over cultural policy, and recollections of artists who lived through the period, including co-curator Zheng Shengtian who taught at Zhejiang Academy of Art in Hangzhou. “We are trying to present a nuanced idea of what went on in China at this time,” says Ms Chiu.
One of the themes is the broad-scale dissemination of visual art. The most famous picture of the period was Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan, 1967, painted by Liu Chunhua; after Jiang Qing declared it a “model painting”, 900 million reproductions were distributed over the next decade. The government-run China Construction Bank declined to lend the original but the exhibition includes preparatory drawings and oil studies which have never been seen in the US before.
Another theme is the contrast between older intellectuals whose ink paintings were denigrated and younger artists who enthusiastically painted propaganda. “Everybody was painting Mao’s image…We had no choice,” recalls artist Chen Danqing in a recent interview. “At the time, I felt that there was no difference between [me and] the Renaissance painters. They painted Jesus, I painted Mao.”
There are previously unknown drawings of daily life by the internationally successful artist Xu Bing, one of millions of youths sent to the countryside for agrarian re-education where he says he enjoyed living among “people transcending politics, hierarchy, and class.” The exhibition also introduces an underground movement called the No Name Group who secretly sketched conventional plein air landscapes forbidden at the time. A closing section will include curator Lu Jie’s “Long March Project,” 2002, a set of cultural events mounted along the route of the Red Army’s legendary retreat from nationalist forces in the 1930s, an example of contemporary artists’ fascination with the revolution. “There is a perception that the Cultural Revolution is a sensitive period and it is to be avoided,” says Ms Chiu, “but many in the Chinese art world feel it is time to look at this period again.”
Two of the exhibition’s sponsors are Chinese, including the Shanghai-based Gaoan Foundation established by the artist Zhang Huan, who exhibited at the Asia Society last year. Meanwhile, the market for this type of work is growing, particularly in China where the state-run auction houses Guardian and Poly Group conduct sales of works consigned by artists; a model painting in the exhibition by Chen Yanning brought more than $1m at Poly in 2006.
It has been a decade since the Asia Society’s major exhibition “Inside Art: New Art from China” helped spur the boom in Chinese contemporary art. Will the present exhibition have a similar effect on the market for art of the Cultural Revolution? “There are a number of delegations of collectors already planning to come from China to see this show,” says Ms Chiu. “I have no doubt [that it will have an impact].”