Journey of Chinese Art in the 20th Century

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Walk into any contemporary art gallery in Beijing today, and chances are that whatever you lay on your eyes upon, whether wondrous or wretched, will owe an unpayable debt to Pollock or Picasso, Warhol or Duchamp. Journey of Chinese Art in the 20th Century is nominally about the historical development of art in the oft-neglected Western parts of this vast country, but for all intents and purposes the exhibition traces the influence of Western aesthetics on Chinese art, from its earnest and exhilarating beginnings to its increasing sanitisation and appropriation into the canon of Communist propaganda machinery.

Divided into three sections covering the 1940s to the present, the exhibition, in laying its bed in the National Art Museum of China, proudly supports the official narrative of these precocious and far-reaching transformations. Luckily for us, this does not prevent the viewer from making an acquaintance with some truly memorable paintings. Though surveys of this sort often lend themselves to plotting the fickly changing fashions of how one should paint, what stayed with us after this exhibition is the at once humbler and more politically provocative question of whatis worth painting.

The survey begins with paintings made in 1942, the year that Chairman Mao made his speech to all the cultural workers of China, commanding them to create art that would serve the revolution by depicting the peasants and working classes, the disenfranchised and neglected. The paintings in the first section are, by and large, absent of the preposterous ideological bombast of the latter ones, in which poverty is depicted as abundance, and the most backbreaking of labours as a pleasant stroll in the meadow. Instead, what we see are portraits and landscapes of labour and folk ritual, of lives of vigour and dignity, in which a man has only really lived if he has tasted the sweat of his labours, and felt the harsh and arid land beneath his fingernails. In these rural scenes, rendered in the delirious colours of a Matisse and the stoic shadows of a Hopper, in the flattened perspectives of the early Italian Renaissance and the aggressive impastos of a JMW Turner, we understand that there might be no greater joy than a folk dance, and that the bleating of a goat or the mewling of a lamb is nothing more or less than the cry of a family member.

By the 1960s, the paintings begin to take on a more obviously ideological slant, with generous swathes of red that cannot be read as anything other than the colour of a Communist utopia. There are countless scenes showing groups of woman labouring in the fields, and not only are they equipped to carry the load, but always with a smile on their faces too. For all of Mao’s shortcomings, it cannot be said that he ever abandoned his belief that ‘women hold up half the sky’. By the time we reach the 1970s, the paintings show Party cadres taming wild buffalos, or clearing roads in the desolate wildness armed only with a red flag, tirelessly espousing the virtues and heroism of living under Mao’s China. If, indeed, there was heroism in the life of an ordinary man in these times, it was not in gallantly taming a beast of burden between one’s loins while waving a red flag, but simply in the fact of having lived through it, and living to paint the tale.

Journey of Chinese Art in the 20th Century: Go to the West of China

is at the National Art Museum of China until 

Thursday 9 January

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