Study on the Creation of Portraits of Mao Zedong (Summary )*


By Yan Shanchun

      Mao Zedong was a great man of China in the 20th century, he was also regarded as “a genius”, “the red sun” and “a sage”. There have been great  achievements of research at home and abroad on Mao Zedong’s life and his thought, and among these achievements, books published by the Central Literature Publishing House are exceptionally valuable. However, studies on Mao Zedong’s pictures and photographs still remain in the stage of collecting, sorting out and publishing the pictures, and have not yet advanced to the stage of analyzing the pictures’ origins, transformation of artistic forms and its significance. With a limited number of art works in hand, I will try to present my preliminary studies on the creation of the image of Mao Zedong in this article, in another word, I will try to give a brief account of the history of the creation of portraits of Mao Zedong.


I. Classification of Periods 

      The history of the creation of portraits of Mao Zedong can be divided into four periods. This classification on the whole is similar to the current classification of the history periods of the Community Party of China (CPC). The first period was from 1930s to 1950s; the second period, from 1950 to 1966; the third period refers to the Cultural Revolution decade (1966—1976); and the fourth period started from China’s implementation of the policies of economic reform and opening to the outside world (in 1978). 


1.     The first period

         The creation of portraits of Mao Zedong in this period largely served for some practical purposes, for example, for a front cover of a book, for an article on a newspaper or a magazine, for decorating a meeting venue, for a guiding placard of a parade or for stamp designs. Most of the portraits were engraved on wood. Two reasons accounted for this material choice: lack of painting materials during wartime and Lu Xun (the father of modern Chinese literature)’s promotion of the new art form of wood engraving. The earliest portrait of Mao Zedong that we can find from an official publication is a portrait entitled Mao Zedong (Picture 1) published in  Revolutionary Pictorial by Red China Newspaper Publishing House in 1933.  From the technique of light and shade treatment on the picture, we can tell that this portrait was based of a photograph, not a portrait of life. Generally speaking, the portraits of Mao Zedong during this period seem fairly rough without much polishing, giving people an impression that Mao Zedong was an ordinary leader of the masses or even a leader of guerrilla warfare. The creation of Mao Zedong portraits during this period was basically spontaneous. Although the central government had also organized portrait creation for some important events, this kind of organization had not become a common practice, and no departments or persons had been appointed to be in charge of the creation. The situation was roughly the same even at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Yan’an. The representative works during this period included a wood engraving Red Star Is Shinning Over China by Wo Cha (late 1930s, Picture 2), a colored woodcut Portrait of Mao Zedong (1942, Picture 3) and a colored woodcut Gathering of Heroes by Shi Lu (1946, Picture 4).


2.     The Second Period

        Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (in 1949), the creation of Mao Zedong’s portraits, particularly the creation of a number of important official portraits, had come under the direct leadership of the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee. The portrayed Mao Zedong during this period started to show an easy manner of a big country’s leader and that of a great man: he was solemn, dignified and affable, with a loving kindness. At the same time, many art institutions at central and local levels had formed commissions in charge of the art creation with the theme of Chinese revolutionary history. During this period, theme paintings depicting Mao Zedong’s revolutionary achievements were produced in huge quantities. Most of the paintings’ settings were based on specific real life situations. Although the image of Mao Zedong was put in a fairly focal position, he was still close to the masses and the image seemed sincere and honest. The paintings were by and large based on photographs, and the artists gave the rein to their own imagination in painting.. The Soviet leaders’ portraits left prints on the artistic form of these paintings. Among the earliest exhibits displayed when the Chinese Revolutionary Museum and the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolutionary first opened to the public, the portraits of Mao Zedong on display typically reflected the features of Mao-theme paintings during that period. What is worth mentioning is that from late 1950s, oil painting artists in China began to explore a national style when painting pictures of Mao Zedong, and the oil painting Chairman Mao in the Jinggangshan Mountains (1959, Picture 5) by Luo Gongliu was one of the examples. Meanwhile, artists of traditional Chinese painting had also tried to be innovative in painting pictures about Mao Zedong, and this effort was mirrored in Shi Lu’s painting Fighting Successively in Different Parts in Northern Shangxi (1959, Picture 6). The representative works during this period were Wang Chaowen’s relief sculpture Portrait of Chairman Mao (1950, Picture 7), Luo Gongliu’s oil painting Chairman Mao Makes a Speech on Rectification at a Carders’ Meeting in Yan’an (1951, Picture 8), Zhan Shangyi’s oil painting Chairman Mao at the December Meeting (1961, Picture 9), Li Qi’s traditional Chinese painting The Chairman Travels the Length and Breadth of the Whole Country (1960, Picture 10), Cai Liang’s oil painting The Son of Poor Peasants (1964, Picture 11), and Peng Lin’s oil painting Idle Boast the Strong Pass Is a Wall of Iron (1965, Picture 12).


3.     The Third Period

       This period can be divided into two phases. The first phase ranged from 1966 to 1969. Because of an imperative need of creating a god, the trend of painting Mao Zedong’s portraits ran rampant. Although it was the Central Cultural Revolution Group that gave the idea of launching this portraits creation movement, it was in fact the masses who basically organized the creation and publicized the works spontaneously. There was a great disparity in artistic quality of the works during this period, when Mao Zedong’s image was totally idolized, and in some works, the image even showed a womanish manner (Picture 13). In this picture, Mao Zedong was high above the earth, with his face glowing with health. The apparent horizon of the picture was extremely low, and the setting was entirely identical to those of stage scenery, with golden rays shinning or red flags spreading all over. The appearance of such stage settings in paintings was attributed much to the massive promotion of the stage photographs of the revolutionary model operas and ballets that Jiang Qing espoused. During this period, there emerged various “official” portraits, take Long Live Chairman Mao – a Collection of Chairman Mao’s Portraits (Picture 14) as an example, it had not only met the propaganda needs for newspapers and periodicals, meetings and posters, but also offered ordinary amateurs a model to learn painting. In this respect, it served the similar function as that of The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (a classic of Chinese painting and a wonderful source of reference) for beginners of painting. The second phase started in 1971 when the Culture Team of the State Council was formed. Since then, the central government had resumed its responsibility for organizing painting creation with the theme of Mao Zedong, and an assessment team and a painting revising team composed of officials and experts had resumed their roles in setting an orientation for the creations. During the following  five or six years, the number of art works about Mao Zedong had been increasing at an unprecedented rate, and these paintings became the hot choice for various national art exhibitions. On the whole, the image of Mao Zedong during this period, compared with that during the previous two periods (from 1930 to 1950, and from 1950 to 1966), showed distinctive characteristics of being “red, bright and shinning” in coloring and “lofty, great and perfect” in figure portraying. Head portraits were largely based on photographs, with much polishing and a tendency of formularization and generalization. Chinese artists started once again to copy the techniques in   composition and figure portraying used by Soviet artists in painting portraits of Soviet leaders. However, when coloring, Chinese artists preferred brighter colors, which made their oil paintings prominent with strong Chinese characteristics, distinguishing from those Soviet paintings. The representative works during this period included Liu Chunhua’s Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (968, Picture 15), Tang Xiaohe’s oil painting Advance In Great Storms (1971, Picture 16), and Chen Yanning’s oil painting Chairman Mao Pays an Inspection to the Rural Areas in Guangdong (1972, Picture 17).  


4.     The Fourth Period

          Since the implementation of the policies of economic reform and opening to the outside world (in 1978) i, avant-garde art, particularly the “political pop” art, emerged in China. The image of Mao Zedong was once again back in the pictures by Chinese painters. This phenomenon partly owed to the influence of the western countries’ pop art, and partly owed to the appearance of some political leaders’ portraits with pop art characteristics in the Soviet Union and eastern European countries in 1980s. During this period, portraits of Mao Zedong had some symbolism characteristics, and, in opinion of some viewers, these pictures did not show enough esteem for Mao Zedong. Representative works during this period included Wang Guangyi’s No. One Mao Zedong Portrait (1988, Picture 18) and Yu Youhan’s Waving (1990, Picture 19).  


II. Origin and Style of the Portraits

        The image of Mao Zedong in art works in China (particular in those after the Cultural Revolution period) were mainly based on Mao’s life photographs. This technique change in portrait painting was attributed to the invention of photography in the 19th century, and more important, attributed to the influence of the Soviet leaders’ portrait paintings as well as the conventional painting techniques applied to such paintings (Isaak Brodsky’s oil painting Lenin in front of the Kremlin and photograph of Lenin in front of the Kremlin, Picture 20). 

          From the materials that I have in hand, I noticed that only two artists in China had the experience of painting portraits from life for Mao Zedong. One of them was Yin Soushi (Picture 21), the other was Shen Yiqian. We can say that almost all artists have had the aid of photographs when they created the images of Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong had his own photographers, but he did not have personal painters. Even Liu Wenxi, an artist who had long been engaged in painting Mao Zedong theme pictures, has created almost all the images of Mao with the aid of photographs. This situation highly resembled that in the Soviet Union. Most of the art works about Mao Zedong   were painted in the forms of New Year pictures or picture posters, followed by the forms of oil paintings, traditional Chinese paintings, prints and sculptures. The styles of these works originated from the traditional woodcut New Year pictures, calendar New Year pictures, modern western woodcuts and the Soviet paintings. The major themes of these paintings originated from historical events or were copied from the Soviet leader portraits. The woodcut New Year pictures affected the style of the Mao Zedong-theme New Year pictures, whereas the calendar New Year pictures left prints on the styles of picture posters and New Year pictures about Mao. The modern wood engraving art and the Soviet paintings had exerted an influence on the content of art creations (i.e. oil paintings, traditional Chinese paintings, prints and sculptures) with the theme of Mao Zedong.  


1.     Influence of the Photographs 

       Photographs of Mao Zedong were the source materials for the images creation as well as, to some extent, the source for the themes.

A. Chairman Mao in Yan’an was photographed by Zheng Jingkang in 1945; wood engraving Chairman Mao was created by Li Qun in mid 1940s; oil painting Portrait of Chairman Mao was painted by teachers and students of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in 1969; a group creation Chairman Mao with Vice Chairman Lin (Picture 22) (by anonymous painters in 1967); photograph Chairman Mao Reviews the Red Guards on the Rostrum of Tian An Men in 1966, and the woodcut Advance with Chairman Mao in Storms was created by Shen Raoyi in 1967. 

B. The oil painting Keeping in Step with Chairman Mao Leads to Victory (Picture 24) was created by Fu Zhigui in 1971. The theme and the composition of the picture were apparently affected by a photograph (Picture 25) on which Mao Zedong, accompanied by Ke Qingshi (Mao’s royal ally in Shanghai), reviewed big-character posters at Shanghai State-Owned Cotton Mill in 1957. In 1974, Fu Zhigui created an oil painting Big-Character Posters Are Good (Picture 26) based on this photograph, but the setting was changed into that of a steel plant.  


2.     Influence of the Woodcut New Year Pictures

       To portray Mao Zedong with the techniques used for the woodcut New Year pictures originated in Yan’an. This change of artistic form owed much to the advocacy by Mao Zedong and Lu Xun (famous writer and founder and patron of the Creative Print Movement) for a national style in artistic creation. In addition to this change, some functions of the woodcut New Year pictures also produced an impact on the creation of Mao Zedong portraits.

A: The Liberated Area in China (Picture 27) was a design for a postage stamp issued by Liaoning Posts in 1945. The portrait of Mao Zedong on the stamp looks different from those of Sun Yat-sen (Chinese revolutionary forerunner) and Jiang Jieshi (head of Guomindang) on the stamps issued by Guomingdang administrative area. This portrait of Mao Zedong was finished by using many lines, and the treatment of the nose apparently resembled that for a woodcut New Year picture. The pattern of Greek-styled columns used to decorate frames of the stamps with Sun Yat-sen and Jiang Jieshi portraits lost its original characteristics when used for the stamp with Mao’s portrait. The radiance on the upper background (of the stamp with Mao’s portrait) was a common sight in woodcut New Year pictures. 

B: Reading a Newspaper (Picture 28) and Lunar Calendar (Picture 29) were two New Year pictures with Mao Zedong’s image published in early 1950s. The painting styles were exactly the same as those of old-fashioned paintings Cattle in Spring and Calendar (Picture 30). 

C. Portraits of Mao Zedong, as central scrolls hanging in the middle of the walls of the main rooms, had, to some extent, satisfied Chinese people’s psychological needs for showing their reverence and worship to the chairman. In a sense, we can say that Mao Zedong painted on the central scrolls had in fact served as a “door-god” (whose pictures were often pasted on the front door of a house as a talisman in old China). From the picture Long Live the People’s Republic of China created by Huang Dan (Picture 31) to the New Year picture Chairman Mao and Commander-in-Chief Zhu (the title of the picture needs to be verified, Picture 32) painted in early 1950s, we can sense the efforts of artists to meet the psychological needs of the masses. In the picture Long Live the People’s Republic of China, liberation army soldiers on horseback were escorting Mao Zedong. The roles of the army soldiers here were equivalent to the roles of Shennai and Yulei (two legendary gods against evil spirits at the Chinese Spring Festival). In the picture Chairman Mao and Commander-in-Chief Zhu, Mao Zedong was portrayed as a “door god” on horseback.   


3. Influence of the Calendar Pictures

        Calendar painting’s major influence on the creation of the portraits of Mao Zedong was its painting techniques. Since the founding of New China, most calendar painters in Shanghai joined the team of painting New Year pictures and picture posters for the new country. They naturally introduced their original painting techniques to the new-theme painting, Xie Zhiguang and Li Mubai were two representatives of the painters. The portraits of Mao Zedong on these New Year pictures and calendar pictures were very popular among the masses because of the pictures’ smooth quality and exquisite style. On contrast, portraits of Mao Zedong in the form of New Year pictures published in Beijing had inherited more traditional techniques from woodcut New Year pictures and traditional Chinese realistic painting (characterized by fine brushwork and close attention to detail). Portraits of Mao Zedong published in Shanghai had introduced the techniques of carbon painting used in western calendar pictures. 

A: A New Year picture Deep Love for the Communist Party and Chairman Mao by Li Mubai (1953, Picture 34) was published by East China People’s Fine Arts Publishing House; a New Year painting Happiness by Li Mubai (1959, Picture 35), was published by Tianjin Fine Arts Publishing House; a New Year picture Profound Friendship by Li Mubai (1959, Picture 36) was published by Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House.

B: A New Year picture Chairman Mao in Composing Poetry (1960, Picture 37) by Xie Zhiguang was published by Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House.


4. Influence of the Soviet paintings

       The painting style and the choice of themes of Soviet leaders’ portraits had influenced the creation of portraits of Mao Zedong. Artists in China could not shake off this Soviet influence in their paintings even in the 1960s when the political relations between the two countries soured. At the high tide of anti-Soviet Union during the Cultural Revolution period, Chinese artists continued to draw on the experience of Soviet artists in creation concepts and modeling methods, and they did have some changes in their creation: to change the “grey tones” of the Soviet paintings into the revolutionary “red, bright and shining tones” in their own paintings. 

A. A New Year picture Chairman Mao and Command-in-Chief Zhu De (1953, Picture 38) created by Ai Zhongxin was quite similar to an oil painting “Stalin and Voroshilov in Kremlin” (1938, Picture 39) by Gerasimov in the choice of content, the way of finding a view and the overall composition. 

B. Sheng Xiaoyi’s way of creating images for a black-and-red wood engraving Long Live the Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought (1967, Picture 40) originated from a sketch entitled Portrait of Marx and Lenin (Picture 41) by a Soviet painter (whose name needs to be verified). The portraits of the “four great men” hanging over the rostrum of the Yang Jialing Central Auditorium in Yan’an in 1945 were also a copy of those of the Soviet paintings. This method of profile drawing produced a great impact on paintings later, and had directly affected the design for the bank note of 100 RMB yuan of the 1990 edition (Picture 42). However, the left-to-right order of the images on the bank note had been changed: the original order of “Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Mao Zedong” was changed to the order of “Zhu De-Liu Shaoqi-Zhou Enlai-Mao Zedong”. This design was not accepted later by the media in China. 

C. From the oil painting The Youth of Lenin (Picture 43) by the Soviet artist B. …, we can find the trace of Liu Chunhua’s painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan. This influence of the Soviet leaders’ paintings lasted until 1970s, when we could still identify the trace from works by Chinese artists. To have a clear picture, let us compare Li Xiushi’s oil painting Strong Wind (1979, Picture 44) with Medvedev Vladimir’s canvas An October Wind (Picture 45).

III. Symbolization

     Mao Zedong had once been deified. However, according to my information in hand now, the western icons and China’s Buddha paintings did not have a direct impact on the painting of Mao Zedong portraits. During the Cultural Revolution,  even those painters for idolatry picture posters of Mao Zedong employed general painting format for deity pictures, or example, putting the deity on a focal position, with gold or yellow rays of light as settings. The light circle at the background of the image of Buddha and the light ring at the background of the image of an icon conveyed a kind of abstract implied meaning, they did not represent specific things. However, the round circle behind the image of Mao Zedong was the sun, and the rays in all directions were the rays of the sun.  

     We denied that the pictures of Buddha or icons had an influence on the creation of Mao Zedong portraits for two more reasons: first of all, painters of Mao’s  portraits had not received any training in painting icons or Buddha, most of them were graduates from academies of fine arts (including Lu Xun Academy of Literature and Arts) which focused on western art, they were not folk art painters; secondly, although Mao Zedong had accepted the fact of his being deified and idolized for the need of class struggle, it seemed that he did not show any interest in pictures of Christianity or Buddhism; even if he was interested in them, he was not likely to make it public. 

    The sun in the portraits of Mao Zedong was the image that had the most symbolic meaning. Although the theme of “The East is Red, the Sun Has Risen” appeared on some paintings in 1950s, it was until the Cultural Revolution that people began to paint the image of Mao Zedong with the sun together. 

      Why did people compare Mao Zedong to the sun, or why did Mao Zedong accept the assumption that he was the sun incarnate? The most direct answer lay in the spread and the impact of the song The East Is Red. Before the origin of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Akhenaten, king of Amarn in Egypt in the 14th century BC had endeavored to worship the sun as the sole god and tried to destroy all other gods and goddesses. According to some scholars, the King Akhenaten’s theory of worshipping a single god was in fact the prelude for the birth of Christianity. However, no religion which made the sun god or an idol came into being later, and Egypt resumed its policy of allowing the existence of various religions worshipping different gods.

        It is now impossible to verify whether Mao Zedong’s interest in the sun has anything to do with this history of solar cult. But Mao did have an obsessive love for the sun. In 1949, after Mao met Stalin, Guo Moruo wrote a poem entitled An Unprecedented Grand Event, in which he said that “this meeting has been just like (Frederic) Engles’ first meeting with (Karl) Marx or Stalin’s first meeting with Lenin; the similarity therein is that they are all meetings between the revolutionary comrades-in-arms; the difference is that Mao and Stalin represent the peoples of the two great nations, with an East plus another East and a red star plus one more red star. Now, we have two suns shining over the world …” In another poem entitled On the Photograph of Chairman Mao Who Is Working Within the Cabinet of An Airplane, Guo wrote the following: “At an altitude of 10,000 meters, the plane is flying as steadily as if it stays on flat ground, it is no wonder that the cabin is steeped in doubly bright sunshine, because there are two suns, with one in the sky and another inside the plane. 

     A: Li Zongjin’s New Year picture The East Is Red (1954, Picture 46) was published by the People’s Fine Arts Publishing House. In this picture, there is not an image of the sun, which, we believe, is implied in the picture as a concept. 

     B. In the picture poster of Arm Our Minds with Mao Zedong Thought, Be a Brave Fighter of the Working Class (Picture 47), Wang Chaowen painted a round outer wheel for the relief sculpture. This round wheel will likely remind people of the sun. On another picture poster Have Technological Innovation under the Guidance of Mao Zedong Thought, the rays of light at the background of the portrait of Mao Zedong obviously symbolize the sun.

    C. In the picture poster Chairman Mao Is the Red Sun in the Hearts of the Revolutionaries from around the World (published during the Culture Revolution period, Picture 49), the portrait of Mao Zedong is completely inlaid into the sun.  


IV. Concepts 

      Mao Zedong was a political leader of a big country, and there were various complicated political and social concepts implied in the paintings of the image of Mao. During the creation period of Mao Zedong portraits, artists were largely dominated by different concepts and tried to express them through their paintings.

1. “Issue of Height”

      Since the founding of New China, creation of Mao Zedong portraits had entered a new stage. Representative works during this period, which were mentioned above,  included Luo Gongliu’s Chairman Mao in the Jinggangshan Mountains and Li Qi’s The Chairman Travels the Length and Breadth of the Whole Country. However, not all the paintings, after all, turned out as people wished. It is said that at a non-public talk in 1958, Mao Zedong implied that he was as tall as Stalin (if not taller than him), and artists had to reflect this fact accurately in painting. He complained: “On the paintings by Chinese artists in early 1950s, I always look shorter than Stalin. This reflects the spiritual pressure of the artists who blindly yielded to the Soviet Union at that time.” 

      In his reminiscences, Ye Zilong said that during the signing ceremony for the China-Soviet Alliance Treaty on February 14th, 1950, he noticed a hardly noticeable detail: when Mao Zedong and Stalin and other high ranking officials were taking a group photo, Stalin slightly moved a small step forward. When returned to the hotel, Ye Zilong mentioned this detail to Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong smiled and said: “Well, this makes us the same height!” Mao Zedong was about 1.80 meters tall, and Stalin was shorter. But they seemed about the same height in the picture. 

      The issue of height of the leaders’ images in paintings had in fact implied their relatively superiority or inferiority of political status. Starting from early 1950s, China began to use the sequence of “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong” for order arrangement for these Communist leaders. However, in eyes of Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution period, the image of Mao Zedong was much higher than other four great men. Such a high status of Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution period was not only attributed to his role as a “genius” or deity in people’s eyes, but also attributed to his great historical revolutionary practice. .  

      Li Qi and Feng Zhen jointly painted the picture A Great Meeting (1951, Picture 50). This picture depicted the moment when Stalin met with Mao Zedong in the Soviet Union. The artists made painstaking efforts to treat the “issue of height” of the two leaders. At first glance, the image of Stalin seems taller than that of Mao Zedong in the picture. But if we follow the perspective principles adopted in the picture and put Stalin, who walked in front of Mao, on the same horizontal axis as that for Mao Zedong, we will find Stalin shorter than Mao Zedong. 

       It is interesting to note that, with the change of propaganda line, the height of  leaders on pictures also changed. Take the following few picture posters as examples: Zhou Cheng in 1953 painted The Glory of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought Is Shining Over the New China (Picture 51), this picture shares the same theme with the picture posters created by “Shanxi Fine Arts Group”: Long Live the Great Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought (Picture 52), but there is an noticeable change in the treatment of the height of Mao Zedong and that of the four great men. And, the image of Mao Zedong is even lofty in the picture Mao Zedong Thought Is the Summit of the Contemporary Marxism-Leninism (Picture 53) created by Wang Zhaoda in 1968.   

2. Issues of Size and Front-or-Side View

       Similar to the “issue of height”, the ‘issue of size” under a specific historical circumstance also became an issue of superiority or inferiority of political status for the leaders. Influenced by the school of realism from the Soviet Union, artists in New China employed the technique of “Representative Image” instead of “Conceptional Image” in the treatment of space in oil paintings. Therefore, the image of Mao Zedong in almost all theme paintings was fairly close to the visual image that people got used to. However, crazy political concepts during the Cultural Revolution changed this means of artistic expression. 

       The oil painting The East Is Red (Picture 54) was created in 1967 by the Anti-Revisionism Corps of the Middle School attached to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the Congress of the Red Guards of Beijing Middle Schools. The technique of “Representative Image” was introduced to the treatment of light and shade as well as space, whereas the technique of ““Conceptional Image” was obviously used in composition. At the focal position of the picture was the front view image of Mao Zedong. ; On the right side of Mao was Lin Biao, Mao’s successor, also with a front view, but in a smaller size; Zhou Enlai, the premier, was on the left side, with an even smaller size of side view imageon the analogy of this were the images of Chen Boda, Kang Sheng, Jiang Qing and other members of the Central Cultural Revolution Group. Pictures of ancient Chinese emperors only emphasized the image sequence rule from big size to small size (Picture 55), whereas the New Year picture the Magic Horses (Picture 56) stressed both the image sequence rule from big size to small size and from front view to side view. In our view, the idea of hierarchy expressed in the picture of The East Is Red is more similar to that displayed in western countries’ icon paintings during the Middle Ages, and the Byzantine inlaid picture the Miracle of the Loaves and fishes (Picture 57) is an example. From the following pictures, we can find how pictures with the same theme have transformed from the employment of the “Conceptional Image” to the “Representative Image”: a group creation (anonymous, needs to be verified) Chairman Mao Is with Us (1967, Picture 58), another group creation (anonymous, needs to be verified) Chairman Mao’s Heart and the Revolutionary Masses’ Beat as One (1967, Picture 59) and an oil painting Carry the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Through to the End (Picture 60) jointly created by Hou Yimin, Deng Shu, Jin Shangyi, Zhan Jianjun, Luo Gongliu, Yuan Hao and Yang Guilin.


3. Issue of Left Side View and Right Side View


      Most of Mao Zedong’s head profiles, especially those on souvenir badges, were of left side view. At initial stage, the popularization of these left side head portraits was probably due to the widely spread of the relief sculpture of Mao Zedong’s portrait created by Wang Chaowen in 1950. This relief sculpture was regarded as somewhat an official portrait of Mao Zedong. In ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, left-sided or right-sided profiles on souvenir badges did not seem to convey specific meanings. Generally speaking, there were more left-sided profiles than the right-sided ones, and the reason might be that most of these profiles were painted by right-handed painters. During the Cultural Revolution, almost all the portraits on official souvenir badges of Mao Zedong were left-sided profiles, but the reason was that the painters were dominated by a concept: Mao Zedong supported the Leftists (Picture 61).


V.  Political Situation and Artistic Destiny  

      Among the art works depicting Mao Zedong, quite a number of them became controversial works in China’s history of fine arts because of some historical events and changes of artistic expression. The “Gao Gang Incident”(in which Political Bureau member Gao Gang was ousted in December 1953 for being accused of illicitly trying to seize control of the party) and the “Cultural Revolution” forced Dong Xiwen, who painted the oil painting Grand Ceremony for the Founding of New China (1953, Picture 62), to make “head transplant operations” for some images on the picture; Zhong Han and Shi Lu were criticized because Zhong did not paint a front view image of Mao Zedong in his oil painting By the Yanhe River (1963, Picture 63), whereas Shi put Mao Zedong on sheer precipice and overhanging rocks in his traditional Chinese painting Fighting Successively In Different Parts of the South and the North; Hou Yimin, painter of the oil painting Comrade Liu Shaoqi and Miners in Anyuan (1960, Picture 64), created another oil painting Chairman Mao with Workers in Anyuan (1976, Picture 65) because of the need of the changing “political situation” and in the hope of clarifying who was the leader of workers’ movements in China. Such kind of paintings often put the painters in an embarrassing situation, and even changed their destinies.

      In the book entitled Illustrated History of Fine Arts Works of New China from 1966 to 1976, we have had a fairly detailed account of the fate of the picture Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan by Liu Chunhua, so we will not repeat the account in this article. In our view, it is worth mentioning two more oil paintings with dramatic stories behind them during the Cultural Revolution, and the fates of the two pictures were more or less related with the painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan.


1. The oil painting Man's World Is Mutable, Seas Become Mulberry Fields - Chairman Mao Is Inspecting Different Parts South and North of the Yangtze River created by Zhen Tiansheng, Zhou Ruiwen and Xu Junxuan


      To remind its readers of the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Cultural Revolution, the May issue of the American Newsweek magazine carried on the front cover an oil painting entitled Man's World Is Mutable, Seas Become Mulberry Fields - Chairman Mao Is Inspecting Different Parts South and North of the Yangtze River (Picture 66). This picture was painted in 1967 by a young teacher named Zheng Tiansheng and his colleagues with Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (today’s China Academy of Fine Arts). This picture spread widely at that time, it could be seen on walls of Shanghai Railway Station, in main streets and roads and other public places of major cities in southern China. The picture had even been printed on various ornament objects. However, the memory of this picture had faded from people’s mind within two years because of a specific historical reason. 

       Mao Zedong inspected a number of important provinces in northern, central southern and eastern parts of China in July 1967, when there had emerged an increasingly fierce factional strife among the Red Guards in different parts of the country. Mao Zedong felt that the situation might be out of control, so he decided to make an inspection tour in person. He expressed his dissatisfaction of some personality cult slogans for him, such as “the four greats” (the Great Teacher, the Great Leader, the Great Helmsman and the Great Commander) and “being healthy forever”. He also pointed out the importance of “sticking to verbal struggle instead of resorting to violence” and “realizing an alliance of rivaling factions”. In some talks, he criticized the rebels (for their extreme activities). This inspection tour marked the end to stormy mass movements. This was the political background for the birth of the oil painting Man's World Is Mutable, Seas Become Mulberry Fields - Chairman Mao Is Inspecting Different Parts South and North of the Yangtze River. To gain political benefits, Zhang Yongsheng, a rebellion leader of Zhejiang province and a student of Print Department of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, went to Beijing in May 1968 and sent to Jiang Qing a batch of local paintings singing the praises of Mao Zedong and asked her to check and approve. From the mimeograph journals at that time, we read these accounts: “After Jiang Qing reviewed a number of pictures portraying the great leader created by the Revolutionary Committee of the (Zhejiang) Academy of Fine Arts during the Cultural Revolution period, she gave this instruction: ‘You need to be specially cautious in painting portraits of the Chairman, or you will fail. You can’t paint in a rough and slipshod way.’ Jiang Qing’s comment on the picture of Man's World Is Mutable, Seas Become Mulberry Fields - Chairman Mao Is Inspecting Different Parts South and North of the Yangtze River was largely positive, but at the same time, she also criticized: ‘It’s good that the masses praise the picture. But we can still find problems when we study the details carefully. For example, the setting is too complicated, and the lower parts of the cheeks look uneasy and the treatment of the right hand is not perfect. If you want to highlight the figure, you can’t have a too complicated setting… Recently, I reviewed an oil painting with the theme of Chairman Mao going to Anyuan, it’s extraordinary, exactly depicting the spirit and makings of the Chairman.’”

      Sending the picture Man's World Is Mutable, Seas Become Mulberry Fields - Chairman Mao Is Inspecting Different Parts South and North of the Yangtze River to Jing Qing to review had not brought to Zhang Yongsheng any political benefits however, but made Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan a model picture of its kind during the Cultural Revolution. The picture Man's World Is Mutable, Seas Become Mulberry Fields - Chairman Mao Is Inspecting Different Parts South and North of the Yangtze River did not get popular because of different reasons. Apart from those superficial problems mentioned by Jiang Qing, the real reason was that Zhang Yongsheng, lack of consciousness for the more complicated class struggle, was not aware that the background for the picture turned out to be Mao Zedong’s criticism of the ultra-Left line represented by Jiang Qing. In addition, there was a rumor going that Jiang Qing thought that Mao Zedong’s posture in that picture was not Mao’s posture, and she believed that it was a copy from the image of Stalin on a Soviet oil painting by Fyodor Shurpin: the Morning of Our Motherland (1946, Picture 67).


     2. The oil painting Workers and Peasants Are Wakened in their Millions

created by Fang Zengxian and other artists


      Although Chairman Mao Goes to Anyan became a model picture of the Cultural Revolution owing to Jiang Qing’s great effort in promotion, artists in Zhejiang province still had such a view: Chairman Mao Goes to Anyan was perfect in conception and composition when portraying the glorious image of Chairman Mao, but its artistic treatment did not displayed the principle (set by Chairman Mao for developing art): “Make the past serve the present and foreign things serve China, Let a hundred flowers blossom, weed through the old to bring forth the new”. In a word, it was largely a western-styled oil painting. Based on this view from the experts of the painting circle, Zhang Yongsheng mobilized some teachers and students from different faculties of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts for a large-scaled creation of works depicting the magnificent contributions Mao Zedong made during various historical periods, in the hope of producing a batch of works which could stand close scrutiny from artistic angle. In 1968, after Fang Zengxian (a teacher) and other two students from the Traditional Chinese Painting Faculty received an assignment of creating a picture with the theme of Mao Zedong in Anyuan, they went to Anyuan to observe and learn from real life for some time, gathered some materials for the painting, and decided to create a large-scaled brush painting. When Fang Zengxian finished a preliminary drawing, he talked to Zhang Yongsheng that it would not be suitable to paint an eight-square-meter picture with the artistic form of brush painting, because it was difficult to control the effect of the finished picture without a current side-view photograph of Mao Zedong for reference, and traditional Chinese painting could not match oil painting in its power of expression during the then “fiery years”. Fang Zengxian suggested to paint this picture with the techniques of oil painting, and Zhang Yongsheng agreed. According to Fang Zengxian’s reminiscences, he created the image of Mao Zedong for the picture based on a profile of Mao in his middle-age (Mao Zedong Was Making a Speech at a Meeting on Rectification in Yan’an in 1942,, Picture 68). It took him half a month to finish the image painting.

        The images were largely painted with zero diopter, whereas costumes and props were painted with the technique of freehand brushwork in traditional Chinese painting (characterized by vivid expression and bold outline). The picture conveyed an extremely strong effect, brimming with vitality. Although the figures’ postures and the overall composition were similar to those of Soviet leaders’ portraits in 1930s and 1940s, the picture on the whole displayed striking features of traditional Chinese painting. This picture was finished with oil painting materials, however, the artists applied many expressive techniques of brush painting to the treatment of outlines, colors and contrast of light and shade. Half of the space was reserved as blank space, which made the figures very prominent. Props and other less important details were boldly eliminated, and the forward-and-backward relationship between objects was expressed with brush painting’s techniques in the use of ink to produce an effect of  density or dilution, instead of using western painting’s perspective principles. Regarding to the method of coloring, the painter largely applied the colors lightly by mixing black and other oil colors. This produced an effect quite similar to traditional Chinese painting’s effect of ink and water, the colors looked rich and strong as well as lively. Using the technique of outline drawing to stress the figure composition was a distinguished characteristic of Zhejiang province’s brush painting style, and the representative artists for this style were Fang Zengxian, Chou Changgu and Li Zhenjian. We can say that this picture, compared with other pictures with the theme of Mao Zedong, was outstanding for its rigorous approach in figure portraying and distinct style. We should admit that this oil picture entitled Workers and Peasants Are Wakened in their Millions is a piece of excellent works with high artistic value, and it accorded exactly with the demands of the propaganda campaign at that time. Zhang Yongsheng strived to make this picture an example of “making the past serve the present and foreign things serve China”, similar to the status of an example in music circle: modern Beijing opera The Red Lantern accompanied by piano. However, Jiang Qing took exception to the picture after she reviewed it. In her view, it was not necessary to paint a traditional Chinese painting with oil painting materials, and as a result, it was not necessary either to set it as an “example” for the fine arts circle, replacing the oil painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan. Today, there is no harm for us to imagine: if Jiang Qing had enough knowledge of the art histories of China and western countries – just as she had enough knowledge of dramas of China and western countries – she might have greatly admired Fang Zengxian’s oil painting, which was “making the past serve the present and foreign things serve China”; she might also set it as a “model painting” for the fine arts circle and vigorously promoted it. If that was the case, painting art during the Cultural Revolution period would be a completely different picture. The fate of the oil painting Workers and Peasants Are Wakened in their Millions was entirely contrary to the expectations of officials and artists of the fine arts field in Zhejiang province. Although some major publications in Zhejiang province had published this picture, some even published the color picture in a full spread page, the memory of the picture soon faded from people’s mind.  

      Mao Zedong had led China’s revolution for half a century. During this period, China’s society had undergone dramatic transformation, and China art had experienced unprecedented changes: its notion of modeling and its form of expression had been deeply stamped with the brand of that era. The art during this period has become an extremely special chapter in the history of world art. In this chapter, Mao Zedong was a very prominent theme. Although Mao Zedong had not pointed out a specific way for the development of China’s fine arts, and he had not given any specific comments either on art works portraying him, we can still clearly sense the aesthetics atmosphere of that era through analysis of art works about him. We can also understand how this aesthetics atmosphere was influenced by Mao Zedong’s political doctrine as well as the society under his leadership, see a moving scene which displayed how Chinese artists conducted art creations with revolutionary passion and observe the operation system, which was quite different from those of ancient Chinese traditional system and modern western system, for art creation, appreciation, checking and approving, dissemination and collection. All these observations will help us  re-establish our knowledge of the social function of art.  



shengtian zheng © 2014