In July, the National Art Museum of China 中国美术馆 organized a vast exhibtion of paintings from its own collection to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the CCP.
Some notes below from my visit:
The exhibit was organized into three sections, each section taking up three exhibition rooms:
1) The New Democratic Revolution 新民主主义革命时期 1921-1949
2) Socialist Revolution and Construction 社会主义革命和建设时期 1949-1978
3) Reform and Opening-up and Socialist Modernization 改革开放和社会主义现代化建设新时期 1978-
There is a nice presentation with a good number of paintings featured on the museum website.
As you come in, you see two monumental oil paintings of the First Congress held in 1921, one at the historic venue in Shanghai (above), the other on the boat at Jiaxing (below), both prominently featuring Mao Zedong. They are part of the pre-1949 section which continues on the left hand side, followed by the Mao-era section on the right-hand side of the museum.
By far the most impresssive is the third section, devoted to post-1979, which occupies the central part of the museum, and in particular the main exhibition room right in the center. It is dominated by 6 huge paintings featuring CCP leaders: in the center a famous full length vertical scroll-style painting of Mao made in 1960, flanked by a wide horizontal one of Mao leading delegates to the first CCPPC. On the left hand side is Jiang Zemin, at the center of a famous painting commemorating the handover of Hong Kong, and on the far left an oil painting of Xi Jinping visiting the Northern Frontier.
On the right of the CCPPC is a wistful, romantic portrait of Deng Xiaoping, and on the far right a huge oil painting of Hu Jintao saluting China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei with an uncharacteristic grin.
So when you look at the whole wall, the two big Mao’s in the center are flanked by Xi and Jiang on the left, and by Deng and Hu on the right. I’ve inserted the paintings below in the order in which they appear from left to right.
Left side:《踏雪边防》 王吉松, 2014;《香港回归》王颖生 2009
Center: 《主席走遍全国》李琦 1960; 《当代英雄》, collective, 1960.
Right side: 《疾风》李秀实, 1979; 《出征》王吉松, 2007.
You could engage in quite a bit of political tea-leaf reading with these six paintings that are clearly the star of the show. First, Mao is a cut above the others, getting two paintings, although in one of them he is just part of a vast collective. Second the choice of representative paintings is somewhat eclectic. Mao gets commemorated both in his personal capacity (Li Qi’s painting seamlessly ties together traditional and socialist imagery) and for setting up the institutions of the new state. But how about Deng? Does this romantic portrait with a title taken from a classical poem do justice to his political role? The only other major event memorialized in the series is the handover of Hong Kong, also in a huge, impressive triptych. Deng appears in the background of that one (with Thatcher), making up for the unpolitical flavor of “Jifeng”. Hu and Xi receive a more allegorical treatment, with Hu commemorated for developing technology and Xi for defending China’s borders.
The work representing the May Fourth period was generally weaker, formulaic, and produced either in the Mao era or in the last decade, like the mannerist oil painting of the Party conference on Jiaxing lake above (2009).
There were however some very remarkable works on display from the Civil War years, especially 1947-48. In addition to rare woodblock prints by Li Hua 李桦 (民主进行曲，起来饥饿交迫的奴隶) and Wang Qi 王琦 (洪流), I particularly enjoyed a 1948 Brueghel-ian oil painting recording in stark detail the denunciation of a landlord by the masses, and a 1950 ink painting portraying the peasants’ new-found enthusiasm when paying their agricultural tax.
莫朴 《清算》1948；潘天寿《 杭县农民争交农业税》1950
The recent focus on ideology and campaigns was also on display, with Jiao Yulu and Lei Feng both featured prominently, the Jiao Yulu painting dated 2009.
Nixon made a brief appearance in another recent painting, looking positively villainous, perhaps reflecting a new understanding of the 1972 meeting, many years later… By contrast, the 2015 victory parade, already immortalized in oil, glowed with rainbow colors… Certainly, Xi Jinping’s 2014 exhortation to artists to record important political events has not gone unheeded, and the official art industry seems to be booming.
《毛泽东会见尼克松》马刚, 2009; 《二〇一五年九月三日》陈坚, 2016
Finally, events of the Cultural Revolution were almost absent from the exhibit, although it coincided with the 50th anniversary of its inception. However, a modest but moving series of picture book illustrations caught my eye, titled, “The Call of the Great Northern Wilderness,” dated 2014, and appearing in the contemporary section of the exhibit.
(couldn’t find the caption for no. 5 which is probably a self-portrait of the artist)
The captions tell the story of the Zhiqing or Educated Youth who were sent down to learn from the “lower and middle peasants” and spent their most productive years in hardship. Although some may see them as overly idealized, these wistful, personal paintings that capture the ironic nostalgia of a sacrificed generation were also a glimpse of individuality in an exhibition otherwise strongly geared to the needs of the state and the collective.
English presentation: http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201607/t20160701_299826.htm
Chinese with slideshow: http://www.namoc.org/zsjs/zlzx/201606/t20160629_299616.htm