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Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979

March 19, 2010

Julia F. Andrews. Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2003)

In this substantial contribution to the field of PRC studies, Julia Andrews convincingly demonstrates that painting and politics were thoroughly intertwined throughout the first three decades of communist rule in China. Her focus is primarily on painting techniques, and secondarily on the content of the works. She brings a sophisticated art historical approach to the periodicals, paintings, and personal interviews that make up her sources.

Two major forms of painting dominate her study: socialist realism, inspired by Soviet models and executed mostly in oil paints; and guohua (national art), based on traditional media but “reformed” to accommodate the more “scientific” method of painting from real life. Led by revolutionary artist Jiang Feng, the art bureaucracy in the early years engaged mainly in the popularization of art, in the promotion of socialist realism, and in the reform of guohua painting. Painting subjects also came under reform: “apples, bananas, and women’s thighs” (p. 43) were replaced with depictions of “real” people engaged in their daily and extraordinary activities.

The profound ambivalence with which Mao and other Chinese communists viewed China’s past is dramatically illustrated in Jiang Feng’s cold treatment of guohua artists and his subsequent purge in the Anti-Rightist Movement, an event Andrews ties positively to Mao’s own support of guohua (p. 197). During the Great Leap Forward, commissions for the newly constructed Ten Great Buldings provided high visibility for guohua paintings, as in the unprecedentedly large This Land So Rich in Beauty, composed by Fu Baoshi and Guan Shanyue in honor of Mao’s poem “Ode to Snow.”

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book deals with the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, a time when bureaucratic weakness allowed for numerous innovations. Andrews discusses in turn developments in urban oil painting in the socialist realism style, the ink drawings for lianhuanhua (serial story pictures) composed by Shanghai illustrators, the reemergence of such regional artistic styles as found in the guohua paintings of Nanjing and Xi’an and the prints of Sichuan and Heilongjiang, and finally the fleeting appearance of “individual” artistry exemplified by the eccentric Shi Lu.

Andrews’ treatment of the Cultural Revolution is both sensitive and sophisticated. While always maintaining a critical eye for artistic failings, Andrews takes seriously the paintings of individuals and committees, and offers interesting details on the specific constraints under which artists worked – as in the correct colors, brush strokes, and even pallette organization for painting Mao’s face. Andrews also describes Zhou Enlai’s attempts after 1971 to provide room again for guohua and the significant consequences this move entailed for Zhou in the closing years of the Cultural Revolution. The book concludes with a chapter on “The Transition to ‘Artistic Democracy.'” While old-school artists continue to control the formal art organizations, a milder political climate and new markets overseas have encouraged a diversification of artistic forms and even a significant, if dangerous, space for subversive art.

As other reviewers have noted (see, for example, Lynn White in China Quarterly 144: 1186-9), Andrews’ narrative not only makes a significant contribution to art history, but also provides depth to (and at times challenges) previous understandings of the period under investigation. Andrews shows that while the Hundred Flowers Movement’s encouragement of diverse styles (including guohua) produced some of the period’s “most aesthetically pleasing art” (p. 401), it also “produced less pluralism than factionalism” (p. 185), with negative impacts on artists’ work and lives. With regard to the Cultural Revolution, she notes that for the art world, the trauma of this era truly began with the cultural rectification campaign of 1964. In a further destabilization of accepted histriography, she challenges the idea that the Cultural Revolution was a “ten-year gap.” Rather, the events of 1964-1976 wreaked perhaps more havoc on works produced in earlier times as artists rushed to destroy potentially incriminating evidence. The perceived “ten-year gap” was then itself created through subsequent destruction of art produced during the Cultural Revolution (p. 315).

Contemporary reviewers found little to quibble with in this formidable contribution to the literature. The most serious charge came from Craig Clunas (Art History 19.1:160-2), who felt that Andrews was not critical enough in her use of living informants, especially when it came to the extremely sensitive Cultural Revolution period. I cannot concur. My only request would be a more thorough engagement in the persistent question of whether art can or should be apolitical, or whether it is always driven by politics, “high” or “low.”

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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