An unbending Chinese artist: Zeng Shanqing is free again
Zeng Shanqing is a painter whose sense of artistic integrity never wavered during bitter years of criticism for ''black paintings.''Skip to next paragraph
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''Whatever you really feel you want to paint, you must paint,'' he said in a recent interview. ''If you are sincere, if you are true to your work, in the end people will understand. Human life is short, but history is long.''
Brave words these, and spoken as often in the West as in the East. But in China, where the memory of the 10-year Cultural Revolution period remains fresh, Mr. Zeng's words have a special poignancy.
Mr. Zeng and his wife Yang Yanping (in China women keep their own names when they marry) paint with equal skill in Western oils and Chinese watercolors. She was his student before she became his wife, and in their lives they have shared bitter and sweet.
Mr. Zeng, born in a modest family, loved to draw and paint from childhood. His father wanted him to work for the railroad, feeling it provided lifetime job security. But at 14 Mr. Zeng got himself accepted by what later became the Central Academy of Art in Peking. Here his talent was recognized and he was befriended by Xu Beihong, then president of the academy, and by Wu Zuoren, then head of the oil painting department.
Mr. Zeng remembers how he wept aloud the day his first set of oil paints was stolen.
He had scrimped and saved for months to order the paints from Shanghai. The day before his class was to begin, someone took his paints from his locker. Messrs. Xu and Wu saved the day by each giving him a set of paints, the remaining colors of which he still treasures.
A star pupil, he won prizes repeatedly during his four years at the academy. After graduating in 1950, he worked for a while at his alma mater, but then was transferred to Qinghua University to teach landscape painting and Western art history in 1952. He remained in this position until 1979.
Mr. Zeng seemed well on his way to recognition as a major young artist when in 1964 he was accused of having ''uglified the working masses'' in Diego Rivera-like paintings such as ''At Rest'' and ''Father of the Sea.''
There followed several years of hard physical labor in the countryside, both before and during the Cultural Revolution.
Meanwhile, in 1958 Yang Yanping took her degree in architecture from Qinghua University (it was Mr. Zeng's lecture on Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel that brought them together), and then spent a number of years teaching factory design at the Peking Industrial College. Never formally trained in art, she yet felt more and more that her vocation was painting, not architectural design.
She found a measure of fulfillment when asked to join a theater to create stage sets. During the Cultural Revolution she became a member of a team of ''artist-workers'' painting such monumental works as heroic outdoor portraits of Chairman Mao. It was hard and sometimes dangerous, particularly during Peking's gusty winds, and scarcely creative, but she says she got useful practice in painting portraits and landscapes.
It is only since the downfall of the ''gang of four,'' headed by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, in 1976, that the Zengs have been able to devote their full time to the painting they love. Mr. Zeng is an associate professor at the Central Academy of Art, while his wife is a member of the Peking Academy of Painters.
During a recent visit to their tiny apartment in the northwestern corner of Peking, I was shown scroll after scroll of their latest works and some of their earlier Western paintings, including ''The Sea.''
The original title of ''The Sea'' was ''At Rest,'' and Mr. Zeng painted it as a gouache in 1962. He changed the title when he redid the painting in oil in 1979, after he had regained his artistic freedom. Both in the gouache and the oil, the subject is two bronzed fishermen at rest on the light brown sand, their broad backs facing the viewer, their eyes looking out to the sea. Mr. Zeng has deliberately placed the figures in the upper right hand two-thirds of his canvas , so that there is a vast expanse of brownish sand in the foreground.