Friday, 16 December 2022

Art in China

Art in China, 1949-1999, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Chairman Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and until his death in 1976, art was subject to strict political controls. Oil painting replaced the centuries-old tradition of ink landscape painting, and the Socialist Realist style adopted from the Soviet Union remained influential until the late 1970s. Pictorial woodblock printing developed from a folk craft to an increasingly creative medium used for both propaganda purposes and more subtle landscapes.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) political images and messages were also produced in the historic media of woven or embroidered silks and papercuts. From 1978, the Reform Era ushered in new possibilities as China re-engaged with the world, and artists encountered ideas and cultural practices from elsewhere. Brush and ink however, had never ceased to be used, and the scrolls and albums in this exhibition include works by some of modern China's most distinguished painters.

Zeng Shanqing, Black Horse, Yellow Horse, around 1990 (ink and colour on paper)

Xu Bing, Lost Letters, 1997, (relief print, printed with oil-based ink)

Bing's work often questions the idea of communiating meaning through language. Lost Letters reflects his interest in the marks and traces of the past, relating not only to historical memory but also to his own personal memories and experiences.

Song Yuanwen, The Sleepless Land, 1979, (woodcut, printed on paper with oil-based ink)

Yuanmen taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and was also at one time Chairman of the Chinese Printmakers' Association. His social role and academic position represent an official stand and have influenced the direction of modern Chinese printmaking. His woodcuts are predominantly monochrome, poetical depictions of the vast northern land.

Wang Qi, Spring Outing, 1979 (woodcut, printed on paper with oil-based ink)

Qi is one of the first generation of modern Chinese printmakers. After the Cultural Revolution, artists regained the freedom to depict daily scenes without any political content. The period after 1977 has been described as the 'spring of arts and literature'.  With mostly monochrome and finely cut images, Qi's highly realistic prints vividly reflect the transformation of modern China since the late 1930s.

Chao Mei, The First Track of Footprints, 1960, (multi-block woodcut printed on paper with oil-based ink)

This work records an event during the late 1950s when ten million soldiers were sent to the Great Northern Wilderness (Beidahuang) in northeast China to become agricultural workers. Chao Mei was one of them. The print presents the soldiers' first experience of the wasteland in extremely harsh conditions. 

Li Qun, Spring Night, 1962,  (multi-block woodcut printed on paper with oil-based ink)

This print depicts an early spring night in a commune village of the northwest region, with bicycles and seeders outside the village office.

Zhao Xiaomo, Golden Sea, 1972,  (multi-block woodcut printed on paper with oil-based ink)

This print records how during the Cultural Revolution school graduates followed Mao's call to 'receive re-education from poor and lower-middle peasants', and settled in the countryside to become state farmers. Formulaic smiling is a typical symbol of that period. The artist was among the 'intellectual youths' sent from the city to the remoted Great Northern Wilderness state farm, where she began to create woodcuts together with a group of other intellectual youths from different parts of China. Since the 1980s the style of her work has increasingly used elements from folk art.

Zhao's early woodcuts reflect the strong influence of Soviet socialist realist style, whilst since the early 1980s her interest has changed to folk style Chinese ink painting.

Zhu Xiuli, Contentment, 1989, (ink and colour on paper)

Xie Zhiguang, Peony, 1974-75, (ink and colour on paper)

Peonies have a long history in both art and literature in China; in Zhiguang's home region of Zheijiang peony festivals were held in temples during the Song dynasty (960-1279), with hundreds of varieties displayed.

Tao Yiqing, River Landscape, 1965, (ink and slight colour on paper)

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