Retrace the Route of Contemporary Art in China - A Curatorial Mission

September 21, 2012, Moscow, Russia

Exchange, dialogue and migration between nations and cultures have taken place throughout the history of art and continue to impact our society today.  It is now commonly recognized such cultural interchanges are not exceptions but normal conditions of modern day living. Unfortunately, very few scholars have investigated the development of collective visual culture, especially those occurring outside the European-American cultural arena.

Curator Hou Hanru recently wrote: “The place of the curator here is in the production of intellectual cultural criticism.  Curating is not about organizing fancy events; it is about stimulating or preserving debate within a creative, dynamic space… It is about trying to materialize an agenda, about producing difference or disruptions in the order. ”As an independent curator, my interest lies in exploring the cross-cultural quality of art’s transition from modern to contemporary.  Focusing particularly on Chinese art, I have been seeking to identify the different forces that have influenced and shaped contemporary Chinese art in the past century.

Western Modernism

Late 1970s saw the growth of contemporary art in China when the so-called Cultural Revolution ended. Many believe this was triggered by the China's reform and opening-up policy that allowed the Western modern and contemporary art being introduced into China. Actually the cultural dialogue and exchange between China and the West started more than a century ago but it was interrupted for almost three decades under the communist regime.

Mainly due to this interruption, the scholarly research on the discourse among artists in China and the West in the first half of the twentieth century has been remarkably rare. The majority of materials on the subject were not published or discovered.  In fact, the only art exhibition in the West since the 1930s which addressed this topic specifically took place in Munich, Germany, in 2004-2005. Titled Shanghai Modern, the exhibition was co-curated by Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, then Director of the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich, Professor Ken Lum, then at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and me. It was a joint project between the City of Shanghai and the City of Munich, presenting dialogues between Modernism and Chinese culture in the 1930’s and 1940’s and its impact on contemporary artists’ practice.

We conducted very intense research in preparation for this exhibition project, in both China and in Europe between 2001and 2004. During our research we came across many interesting materials in both areas which illuminated the relationship between East and West and the debates on this relationship amongst Chinese intellectuals and artists before the World War II. These debates provided a framework which has influenced art practices in China over the past eighty years and may still stimulate dialogue among us today.

At the turn of the 20th century, individual Chinese students began to go overseas to study Western art. Before 1949, virtually all the principal teachers at Chinese art academies had studied abroad, in Europe or Japan, and, as a consequence, the academic curriculum and pedagogic methodology used at the time were structured after those of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris or the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.

One of the key artist-curator-educators engaged in these exchanges was the Shanghai artist Liu Haisu who, in 1934, organized a major exhibition of modern Chinese painting at the Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin that later toured to Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Amsterdam, Geneva and other cities. The exhibition showed 297 works, representing four schools of modern ink paintings in the early twentieth century. A German curator William Cohn described the exhibition “hailed by the entire German press with almost unanimous approval.” [①]The State Museum of Berlin received a group of paintings as a gift from the show and established its first modern Chinese painting collection, including important works by artists Huang Binhong, Gao Qifeng and Pan Tianshou. Later these paintings were seized and taken to Russia by Soviet troops in 1945.

The exhibition Shanghai Modern introduced many undisclosed historical events like this and showcased the artists who played significant roles in the cultural dialogues. Besides paintings using Chinese and Western media, it also displayed the sample of woodcut prints, photographs, films, architecture, graphic and fashion design.

I consider this is one of my first projects in exploring the major international interchanges that helped shaping contemporary Chinese Art.

Socialist realism and revolutionary art

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Chinese government began to promote Soviet art in art academies. A pedagogical system designed by Pavel Chistyakov[②] was introduced into China in 1952. The adoption of this teaching measure is considered by many to be an example of the Chinese Communist Party’s “lopsided” diplomatic policy towards the Soviet Union, as reflected in the field of art; but in fact this is an inaccurate view. Chistyakov rigorous realist painting approach is a continuation of the tradition of the European academicism. Ironically the classical European art training method was even strengthened during this period of Communist China. From the 1950s to the early 1960s Chinese art students still spent most of their time in studio drawing plaster casts of classical Greek sculptures or nude models.

Perhaps best-known sample was Moscow-based artist Konstantin Maksimov who was sent by the Soviet government to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1955 to train Chinese artists in Soviet-style realism.[③] His class was immensely popular and influenced an entire generation of Chinese artists.

On the other side was the indoctrination in socialist ideology and Communist Party politics. In 1951, the established policy guideline for artists in China was “to implement all forms of the arts and integrate them with the current social struggles and the work of art for the masses”. This echoed Lenin’s point of view that art must be part of the revolution, and art should become the overt tool of the revolution and Communist Party.

Most art works produced from 1949 to 1969 in China followed the direction of socialist realism. They are often seen as pure propaganda and not worthy of scholarly study or aesthetic scrutiny. It is true that all artists were required to produce art that serve the Party’s interest and personal freedom was not encouraged. But the enormous number of the art works produced during this period, including the Cultural Revolution, shouldn’t be overlooked. As curator Melissa Chiu acknowledged:

“For better or worse then, the art of this time represents a significant cultural event in China—one that deserves attention not only for its own merits but because it continues to influence Chinese art and visual culture. As artist Xu Bing has said, ‘If anyone wants to probe deeply into the underpinnings of contemporary Chinese art one must consider the influence of the Cultural Revolution on my generation because it was an entirely unique experience’”.[④]

In 2002, I co- curated the Art of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution for Belkin Gallery, University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Power Plant in Toronto.  From 2005, with Melissa Chiu, I started another curatorial project examining the influences of revolutionary art on contemporary Chinese culture.  The show expands the scope of contemporary Chinese culture and art by taking into consideration China’s revolution and the foreign influences introduced mostly by the Soviet Union.  I regard this show as a second installation in investigating the wide foundation of contemporary Chinese art.

Art & China’s Revolution opened in September, 2009 at the Asia Society Museum in New York. The exhibition brought together large-scale oil paintings, ink paintings, sculptures, drawings and artist sketch books, woodblock prints, posters, and objects from everyday life, many never shown before. It is the first exhibition ever to examine in-depth the powerful and complicated effects of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary ideals on artists and art production in China. The show brought the largest audience to the Museum since its establishment in 1950s.

Mexican muralism and popular art

Even in recognizing modernist and revolutionary influences, contemporary Chinese art still suffers from the stigma that it is a product mainly under the Western influence. Very few acknowledge the cultural dialogues occurring prior to the ‘opening of China’ in 1980’s, especially during the Mid- Twentieth Century when China was completely closed to the West.  Owing to China’s political inclinations from the early 1950’s to the late 1970’s, they chose to engage only with countries of the “Third World”.  Mexico was one such country invited into dialogue with China.  The exchange produced undeniable influences largely overlooked by today’s scholars.

Documented contact between Mexico and China can be found as early as 1930 when the writer Lu Xun introduced Diego Rivera’s mural “The Night of the Poor” in a left-wing magazine Big Dipper for the first time. In early 1930s Mexican artist, Miguel Covarrubias visited Shanghai a couple of times and soon became the mentor of a group of young Chinese artists.  His influence has been obvious in the development of the popular art forms in China.

After China’s communist revolution, cultural exchange continued to develop between the two struggling developing countries well into the 1950’s.  A major exhibition took place in July 1956. Ignacio Aguirre, then Secretary of the Mexican National Plastic Art Front[⑤] visited China and brought 138 paintings and 258 graphic works to Beijing.  The exchange continued with visits by Mexican artists, like David Siqueiros, Arturo Bustos and a Chilean muralist, Jose Venturelli.[⑥] Siqueiros gave a lecture to the Chinese Artists Association in October 1956 and strongly criticized Socialist Realism. He advised Chinese artists not to follow the footsteps of their fellow Russian artists. In one of the discussions he said:

“Not only new content is needed (for art); but also new form. We need a new form that is differentiated from the art of any other time….This art has to absorb all the great achievements created by artists prior to our time, including those of modern Western schools.”[⑦]

Mexican artists’ paintings, and their ideas, excited and inspired young Chinese artists, presenting alternatives to the Soviet style.  Many students in art academies tried to use this new approach to paint despite the criticism they might face. Yuan Yunsheng,[⑧] then a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, explained why he was attracted to Mexican art: “Because their political ideals and artistic pursuits were in complete consensus, they were not forced by others”.[⑨] Yuan was labeled a “rightist student” and sent to a labor camp because he made his graduate project in his own style.

The first art event that marked the beginning of a new era for Chinese art after the Cultural Revolution was the mural movement.  Commissioned by the Beijing Airport in 1979, a group of Chinese artists completed a dozen large scale murals pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. With muralism as its vehicle, the dialogue of contemporary art repaired the breaks with its past to push forward into a new and unique style now heralded around the world as contemporary Chinese art.  Mural technique continues to prevail as an important tool in the expression of today’s Chinese artists.

As a third installation to my research on foreign influence in contemporary Chinese art, I have been working on an exhibition proposal that demonstrates this significant cultural interchange. Over the past few years, I have interviewed artists, visited important art sites in both China and Mexico, introduced Chinese muralists to Mexican muralists in Mexico City and Guadalajara, collected unique and valuable primary resources, and translated important primary documents for dissemination among the scholar community in different countries. 

This proposed exhibition will be a major international production joined by museums in Mexico, China and North America. I think the significance of this exhibition is that it succeeds in representing a modern Chinese art history through its own reality and logic for the first time.  I am not saying to select and evaluate art by Western criterion in general is all wrong.  But we need to examine art trends and changes within its own context to better understand and define their relationship.  It is necessary to note that an objective and comprehensive study of the development of contemporary art in China and other Asian countries have never been fully conducted.

I would like to quote American scholar Dr. Julie Andrews’s words to conclude my presentation: “Modernism, Socialist Realism, Postmodernism, and various forms of traditionalism coexist, competing and interacting in way that may bear little relationship to the history of Western art. …. China’s artists will continue to construct their culture at the juncture of their own particular history and the trends of the contemporary world of which they are a part.”  

[] Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Shanghai Modern, Shanghai Modern, 1919-1945, Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2004, 37.

[] Pavel Chistyakov (1832 – 1919), Russian artist and educator.

[]  For an analysis of Soviet socialist realism see Boris Groys (1992) The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

[] Xu Bing, Interview May 27, 2000, Sydney.

[] Ignacio Aguirre (1900-1990), Mexican artist.

[] David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), Arturo García Bustos (1926-), Mexican artists;  Jose Venturelli (1943-1988), Chilean artist.

[] Wang Qi, Huatan Manbu (Hong Kong: Chinese Cultural and Art Press, 2005), 261-262.

[] Yuan Yunsheng (1937-), Chinese artist.

[] Yuan’s comment on the comparison between West and Oriental art can be found at

shengtian zheng © 2014