Art and China’s Revolution

The Asia Society's exhibit of art from China's recent past shows the detrimental effects of Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution.

Art and China’s Revolution

Asia Society, New York

Through Jan. 11

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This exhibition of artworks from China’s recent past has the Beijing government “so nervous it’s already pulled some of the pictures,” said Linda Yablonsky in Bloomberg.com. The exhibition aims to chronicle the detrimental effects of Mao Tse-tung and his Cultural Revolution on the country’s visual arts, and to prove how they’ve recovered. “It seems today’s Chinese government officials don’t like that point of view.” Fortunately, private collectors and some of the artists themselves have stepped forward to replace the works that were pulled. The collection of more than 200 paintings, prints, and sculptures succeeds in “pulling back the curtain on much in China’s recent cultural history still unknown in the West.”

In the years following China’s 1949 Communist revolution, visual art had “an influence on everyday life inconceivable today,” said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. In an unindustrialized country with low literacy levels, “it promoted ideas, shaped public emotion, and acted as a force of moral persuasion.” In other words, it was propaganda, most often directed toward deifying Mao. “In woodcuts from the late 1960s, his face radiates light.” Oil paintings, later copied for posters printed by the millions, portray him in a narrowly hagiographic range from “messianic matinee idol” to “a god surveying the China he rules from heaven.” The style of the era’s paintings is primarily influenced by the soulless socialist realism created by Soviet artists: Both Western abstraction and traditional Chinese arts were frowned upon.

These days, Chinese painters are no longer required to paint Mao—but they still do, said Lance Esplund in The New York Sun. In fact, many of the recent works here seem a bit “Mao-fixated.” Three enormous stainless-steel Maos by Qu Guangci welcome visitors to the exhibition, and another Mao sculpture is being temporarily placed on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. Meanwhile, the Asia Society’s gift shop is filled with such tchotchkes as “Mao-faced books, bags, posters, and alarm clocks.” That lends the whole exhibition an oddly distasteful mood. This is a man, after all, who some experts say was responsible for more than 70 million deaths—imagine the outcry if a major American museum were selling posters of Hitler. I don’t blame Chinese artists for working through their ambivalence about their country’s past by painting its former leader. But this exhibition suggests that, insofar as he continues to dominate their cultural imaginations, “Mao is still strangling Chinese art.”

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