Bulletin May 2019 (Vol. 20 No. 2)

The story of modern art has typically been framed as a Western story that began when European artists started challenging realism in the mid-19th century. But modernity is not a preserve of the West, as Professor David Clarke shows in a new book that maps the transformation of Chinese art over the past century to the country’s main historical events. CHINESE ART IN THE MODERN ERA China-Art-Modernity: A Critical Introduction to Chinese Visual Expression from the Beginning of the Twentieth Century to the Present Day Author: David Clarke Publisher: Hong Kong University Press filled with pages and pages of Chinese characters that do not actually exist – Xu made them up. Professor Clarke noted that when the work was first shown, many viewers found it disorientating to be surrounded by something seemingly familiar – national writing – only to find it was meaningless. Other artists also started blending Western styles and Chinese themes in striking formats. When modern art took hold in the West over a century ago, the flat, disjointed surfaces and obvious brush strokes that characterised cubism, impressionism, expressionism, abstraction and other movements were considered a breath of fresh air against the realistic painting of the day. But when artists in China turned to modernism, it became something else entirely. Traditional Chinese ink painting and landscapes already had flat surfaces and visible brush strokes, so for some painters, embracing realism was itself an act of rebellion. As David Clarke, Honorary Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, shows in his book China-Art-Modernity , there was a profound awareness among Chinese artists of different ways of defining modernity. These artists were not only reacting against tradition but also deciding whether to look to Western or Chinese materials and sources, and whether to work in a realist or a modern style. Artists began to experiment with modernity in the republican era of 1911–1949. Some, like Xu Beihong, adopted a realist style that challenged traditional styles. Others like Lin Fengmian favoured a more obvious modernist style. Still others, like Gao Jianfu, blended traditional Chinese painting with modern images, such as a rainy landscape with biplanes flying staring into space. This is an expression of modernism because the viewer does not know what she is thinking – she has private thoughts, whereas in the Cultural Revolution the state had all the answers, Professor Clarke said. The state is not the only outlet for art With the open-door policy, more influences from the outside world started to re-enter the country and artists began to embrace newer art forms such as installation art. The printmaker Xu Bing used the format to create Book from the Sky in 1988, which offered a striking take on a changing country. Viewers entered a room For example, Yue Minjun’s 1995 painting The Execution, which features his trademark smiling/ grimacing faces, is based on a painting by 19th -century French artist Edouard Manet. Wang Guangyi adopted pop art influences, such as 1988’s Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2, which is a portrait of Mao with a red grid super-imposed. Viewers in the West might see that as making fun of Mao but Professor Clarke said Wang was analysing Mao’s image and working through complex feelings about the leader he grew up with. In fact, pop art became a useful format for deconstructing the images of the Cultural Revolution which, like pop art itself, were mass-produced and repeated over and over. There is a key difference between Chinese art today and that of the Mao era, though, in that today’s art has an international audience and can sell for tens of millions of dollars. Even though President Xi Jinping has put nationalism under the spotlight again, the state is not the only outlet for art. Professor Clarke said he hoped his book – which is unusual for covering the sweep of Chinese modern and contemporary art in an accessible format – will help people learn about not only Chinese art but China itself. █ overhead – an example of using tradition to try to modernise Chinese art, Professor Clarke said. Testing the waters in the Mao era During the Maoist era of 1949–1976, realist painting’s association with modernity made it the accepted way of depicting the state and its goals. But the art of that period was not just a mass of socialist-realist propaganda. Ink painting, a highly expressive medium, also came into its own. Although artists did not go so far as to create subversive works – that would not have been tolerated – they did appear to test the waters. Fu Baoshi, for example, produced an ink painting in 1961 called Heavy Rain Falls on Youyan. It is a depressing picture with the rain seeming to obscure the landscape, but it was based on the first stanza of a poem that Mao Zedong himself had written during the civil war. The poem ends optimistically, but this is not evident in the painting. In the post-Mao era, starting with his death in 1976, realism still endured but in a new format as artists pushed realism into new realms. For example, He Duoling’s 1982 painting The Spring Breeze Has Returned shows a young woman He Duoling’s The Spring Breeze Has Returned created in 1982. Wang Guangyi adopted pop art influences in Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2, which is a portrait of Mao with a red grid super-imposed. Yue Minjun’s 1995 painting The Execution featuring his trademark smiling/grimacing faces is based on a painting by 19th-century French artist Edouard Manet. 51 | 52 The University of Hong Kong Bulletin | May 2019 Books