Written by He Libin
The year of 1979, was an important one for many Chinese. With the People’s Republic of China witnessing its first year of opening-up and its 30th anniversary, the government’s cultural and art policies began to loosen up. This year, artists working in Kunming, Yunnan, such as Ding Shaoguang, Jiang Tiefeng, Yao Zhonghua, Wang Jinyuan, Liu Shaohui and Wang Ruizhang formed an artist group named “Shen Society.” They chose the name “Shen Society” for several reasons: first, 1979 was the Year of Monkey in Chinese Lunar Calendar, and one meaning of “Shen” in Chinese language was “monkey;” second, the Monkey King was a popular figure among Chinese; and third, they wanted to express the desire to pursue freedom and truth and uplift social justice, as “Shen” can also mean “uplift.” This group of artists often got together to discuss art, and chose to learn the idea and style from Cubism and Fauvism in modern Western art and to pursue the language of formal beauty in art. In 1980, Shen Society organized an exhibition of 120 artworks from 23 artists in the Museum of Yunnan Province. In the following two years, they organized some artists to hold exhibitions in Beijing and Hong Kong. Their paintings in the main have a tendency of flat painting and decoration deformation, characterized by gorgeous colors, and, through the portrait of the life of minorities in Yunnan, exhibits an aesthetic style featuring intertwined illusion and emotion, exoticism and imagination. The new style, just like a fresh breeze in China’s painting community, at that time still imbued with the style of revolutionary realism in the Cultural Revolution, together with the contention about the style and subject of the fresco1 in Capital Airport, triggered a massive debate about formal beauty across the country, the first nationwide sensation started by Yunnan art. At that time, some younger Yunnan artists were still in college, such as Mao Xuhui in Yunnan College of Art, Zhang Xiaogang and Ye Yongqing in Sichuan College of Art, and Mao Dehai in Northeast Normal University, who asked his university to assign him to a job in Kunming after graduation. These young people, active in thinking, got together naturally, maintained correspondence with each other at college, and went together in Kunming during vacation to watch exhibition, go out for living sketch or discuss art all day and or night. Similarly, they also drew nutrition from Western modernism. But unlike the artists of Shen Society, they accepted the cultural heritages such as expressionism, surrealism, symbolism and existential philosophy. Undergoing the adolescent frustration and rash, they found the Western modernistic ideas and philosophies, particularly those after the impressionism, somehow consistent with their mentality. At that time, artists such as Zhang Ding, Wu Guanzhong and Yuan Yunsheng frequently went to Yunan to sketch, hold exhibition or give lecture. Young artists like Mao Xuhui were also influenced by the concept of “formal beauty2” raised by these artists. But when they saw the exhibition of German expressionism in the summer of 1982 in Beijing, they were tremendously excited and shocked, realizing that it was expressionism that was the right approach to express their feeling and mentality. Another trace was their experience of traveling to Guishan Mountain several times for live sketch. In 1979, Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang, Ye Yongqing and Yang Yijiang, still college students, went to Guishan Mountain to sketch. Guishan, which they long yearned for, was a village of minority Sani people located about 100 kilometers away from Kunming, a pastoral place very much resembling the scene in the paintings of 19th century French Barbizon School artist Jean Francois Millet. Before them, many senior artists also went there and portray Guishan with the Soviet realistic approach and expressionist language of light. Mao Xuhui and his colleagues also used similar language in their expression, but they always had a feeling that those splendid portraits somehow fell short of their feelings. In the following several years, they went to Guishan several times and gradually found the language that suited their feelings. Mao Xuhui’s “Mother of Laterate: Guishan Series” accentuated the tremendous energy concealed in the red soil, and the people, the trees and herds growing from the red soil are gushing, flushing and erupting, with burning primitiveness and lust everywhere. Zhang Xiaogang’s “Behind Mountain” and “Evening Breeze” exhibit the blunt and rough touches like Van Gauge, portraying the primitiveness and hardship of life in a mountainous village. Ye Yongqing drew upon the composition principles of Western classic fresco in his “Sani Sisters in Shepherd Village,” “Sheep Killed by Wolf in Front of Village,” “Blind Girl Going Home” and “Startled Bird” etc, and sketched a series of pastoral lyric pictures by setting some narrative details and scenes. It was the landscape of Guishan that shed some light onto and awakened their mind long sealed in urban life, and presented a stark contrast with their status and mentality in the city. Back in city, Mao Xuhui finished his artworks like “Red Volume” and “Private Space,” depicting a moving volume struggling to shake off the outside shackles and pursuing the true self when running, reflecting the fact that the confrontation against social ideology is evolving to resistance to everything outside self. Life and dream, reality and illusion, intertwined in his chaotic think, are scarcely distinct from each other. In June 1985, Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang, Pan Dehai and Zhang Long brought their artworks with them and held an exhibition named “Neo-figurative” in the Art Gallery of Jing’an District, Shanghai. What is “neo-figurative”? Mao Xuhui explained in the introduction of the exhibition: “…the concept of ‘neo-figurative’ is devised in an attempt to transfer art away from a vulgar sociological tool and the whole set of false models and social interests that are resulted and to art itself, and to free artists from the position of dependent and slave and restore them to the height of noumenon of man.” Thereafter, the neo-figurative school held several exhibitions in Nanjing, Kunming, Chongqing and the U.S., and later launched activities like “Southwest Art Study Group,” until the full stop when the majority of the members of “neo-figurative” participated in “China Modern Art Exhibition” in 1989.
After 1990s, the artists returned to the status of everyday life, when Mao Xuhui painted “Everyday Epic” series and “Patriarch Series: Vocabulary about Power,” Zhang Xiaogang began to work on “Big Family” which later attracted wide attention, and Ye Yongqing was drawing “Big Poster.” In addition, a school of even younger artists began their journey with a range of exhibition activities: “1992 Painting Exhibition,” “Present Status,” “Individualism,” “Types of Life,” “Urban Personality,” “First Exhibition of Oil Painting Society” etc. Landscape was presented in their artworks with characteristics different the “neo-figurative” school in two ways: first, the anxious sentiment was manifested, and man appears confrontational with landscape; second, the identity of self was blurred, lost, and drifting in weightlessness. In 1992, Zhu Fadong carried out his action of “Notice Seeking Lost Person” in Kunming by looking himself by posting notices seeking himself all over the city in order to express his generation’s feeling of the loss and seeking of self identity in early 1990s. Zeng Xiaofeng’s “Electric Saw and Landscape” juxtaposes electric saw, a symbol of modern industry, and landscape in the same picture, in which the savage electric saw is ripping and devouring ancient architecture and natural landscape, thereby exhibiting fierce clashes between industrial and natural landscapes. Luan Xiaojie in his “Trunk and Branch Series” treats human and tree as a whole body, producing a Delvaux-style grotesquery and surrealistic scene. The objects in the picture, resembling both amputated limbs and muscles, stack in the ambiguous space, glittering with queer shine, while the shallow trunks and branches appear illusive and fragile. Wu Jun’s “Dusk Shadow in Wind” portrays blurred human figure floating above a dilapidated city, with the picture pervaded by endless anxiety. Duan Yuhai’s “Beauty and Limousine” puts a pretty woman, limousine and cosmetics in the same picture, presenting the new orientations and changes in the Chinese society after the 1990s. Li Ji’s “Fashion Girl” also employs the language of gaudiness and juxtaposition by putting a woman with heavy makeup and her pet in a single picture, erotic yet exotic, just like Yamato-e in modern time. In their artworks, everything from the confrontation between humans and their surroundings to drifting in weightlessness is illustrating a kind of potential anxiety and anguish, collectively reflecting the chaos of value, loss of individual identity and the spiritual journey to regain it, juxtaposed by China’s faster process of market reform and urbanization as well as aggravated destruction of natural environment after the 1990s. Their artworks were a reflection of that generation of artists’ collective experience of urban life, and directly heralded the look of the artworks of artists born in the 1970s and 1980s.
After 2000, consumerism and fashion have become the mainstream value in urban life, and the modern popular culture, involving film, magazine, web, cartoon, pervasive advertisements, has constitutes the daily environment for urban dwellers. Artists grown up in such an environment are clearly split in aesthetic approaches: some inherit the scene of anxiety from the previous generation of artists, reflected in their artworks by the tendencies of self-ostracism and anti-metropolitan; others uphold and practice the aesthetics of transient coolness, clamor and popularity, in order to acquire new inspirations and art resources by plunging themselves into the scene of metropolitan consumerist culture. Whether they are anti-metropolitan or putting themselves in metropolitan, landscape exhibits a tendency of virtualization and patching up. Since 2003, several important art events heralded the début of post-1970s and 1980s artists. Exhibitions such as “Health Checkup,” “Sheep Is Coming,” “Altitude Sickness,” “Ultraviolet Radiation,” “Entertainment Is Paramount” etc. on the one hand highlighted the young artists’ sensitivity to and concern about the relationship between their growth and changes of their surroundings, and on the other hand reflected the divergence of the above-mentioned aesthetic perspectives. In 2003, He Jia began to draw his “Balloon Man” series, which portrays a range of human-like figures without clear identity or complexion, with shining colors all over, drifting or walking in the city or amidst natural sceneries which are thin and transparent, beautiful but illusive just like these balloon men. Zhang Jinxi’s “Glass Man” series exerts the beauty of transparency to the utmost, whereby the body of the glass man reflects the surrounding landscape, which together with the man presents a sense of illusive yet transient vanity. Guo Peng recorded the landscape in Kunming Park with his camera and endowed strong colors to these traditional garden views with manual rendering. Nevertheless, these pictures look in every way like frames of exotic images imbued with a smell of decadence and mustiness. Yu Hua creates an image of a rabbit mingled with man, placing themselves in a metropolitan like a fairy tale, consciously getting lost in the urban labyrinth. Contrary to these artists, some others followed the tradition of expressionism and deliver a primitive and remote flavor with conflicting and turbulent pictures and heavy yet provocative colors. In Zhao Leiming’s paintings, men are always placed in closed space, where even natural landscape appears suffocating, and distorted human body locked in the space is like imprisoned beast struggling. Lan Qingxing’s “Crazy Talk,” “Wind Talk” and “Wind and Rain” portray weeds, starry sky, red trees and red human body to express the desire of man to leave the clamorous urban and return to simple nature. However, would therefore going back to the past be meaningful? He did not give an answer. Shi Zhimin went further with his “Glacial Epoch,” where there is no civilization, no urban, nor the natural landscape today, but the extinction of everything, cold and silent.
As a cross section, the artworks of the above-mentioned artists represent the true situation of post-1970s and 80s artists. Overall, they are more diversified, and values individual difference and experience more, and their artworks also exhibit diversity and new aesthetic tendencies. But this group of artists also generally manifests a tendency of vanity. Whether they are committed to this country or ostracize themselves to somewhere far away, would such approaches actually solve the conflicts and dilemmas in the real world, and deliver an everlasting value to lend the artists experience and enlightenment? Answers to these questions are expected only after necessary observations.
Time keeps on changing, and each generation has their own dilemmas and problems to face and solve, and to confront with the perpetual beings in nature; what the Yunnan artists in the 1940s saw were beautiful landscape and Eden-like minority culture, in which they were enchanted; what the artists in the 1950s saw were the perching images in their inner feeling, where they found their mother of spirituality; artists of the 1960s held themselves slightly aloof when faced with the nature; the disruptive situation of the artists of the 1970s had them see nothing but a realm of vanity whether they placed themselves in urban or returned to nature, whereas artists in the 1980s were lost and enchanted in the landscape of alienation….Facing the eternal nature, what insight do the artists arrive at? Could they acquire from the nature a fundamental wisdom that cuts across everything in the universe, so as to provide mankind today and tomorrow with an enriching and meaningful way of migration in this world? This should be the shared mission and direction for several generations of Yunnan artists.
March 9, 2009 at Yun Yi Xuan, Kunming
1. Capital Airport fresco: On September 29, 1979, then China’s largest modernized airport – Capital International Airport, was completed, when 7 giant frescoes in its lounge were also unveiled to the public. Among them was a 27 meters long and 3.4 meters long fresco titled “Water-splashing Festival – Paean of Life” drawn by Yuan Yunsheng, portraying the scene of Dai people (a minority ethnic group living in Southwest China, particularly Yunnan) celebrating their Water-splashing Festival. The fresco consists of two parts: on the front side of the wall was scene of Dai people carrying water, splashing water and dancing; on a smaller wall to the east were scenes of bathing and courting. Because of nudity in this bathing part, the fresco was covered with a curtain several months after it was unveiled for show. On the eve of China’s National Day on October 1, a grand ceremony of completion was held for Capital International Airport, one of the key national construction projects shortly after the Cultural Revolution. The frescos in the lounge unveiled at the same time became a sensational event for China’s art community that year. Among all these frescos, “Water-splashing Festival” was the largest one, and the first artwork appearing in public space with nude human body ever since the People’s Republic of China was found in 1949, triggering widespread debate in media at that time.
2. Formal beauty: In 1981, artist Wu Guanzhong published an article titled “Content Determines Form?” in the 3rd issue of the journal Art that year, for the first time raising the question of “formal beauty” in art. Wu argued that in artworks, the form could came to existence before the content, a proposition that retorting the principle of “content determines form” in art in the Cultural Revolution and triggering a nationwide debate about content and form.