The best of new Chinese art

CHINESE painting isn't all about bamboo groves and mountain mists, plum blossoms and beautiful white egrets balanced precariously on one leg. Nor is it all done in black and white, on paper or silk, and preserved in the form of scrolls. Most of it, in fact, is about everyday life in China today, about farmers in the fields, fishermen in the South China Sea, factory workers on the job or relaxing at home, market day in remote mountain villages, and children at play. And more often than not, it is executed in oils on canvas and in a variety of styles that range from modified forms of Impressionism and Expressionism to straightforwardly descriptive kinds of realism.

To the surprise of some Westerners, oil painting is not new to China. It was already being taught in Shanghai before 1920 by Japanese artists and young Chinese painters who had acquired their skills in Tokyo. And many of the art students who went to Europe in the 1920s and '30s to study Western-style painting returned a few years later to teach what they had learned in China's newly established academies of art.

Realistic oil painting's biggest boost, however, came from Mao Tse-tung, who already in 1942 had proclaimed in his ``Yenan Talks on Literature and Art,'' that ``socialist realism'' was the only true path for art. What he had in mind, unfortunately, was a rigid, Russian-inspired form of social and political propaganda that became particularly oppressive during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

With Mao's death in 1976, matters slowly began to improve, and then to accelerate rapidly in 1979 when the government decided to give greater freedom to its artists. The latter took advantage of this new latitude to tackle an ever-greater variety of styles - most of them representational in origin - and then to submit the best of what they had produced to China's Sixth National Art Exhibition, held in October 1984.

This exhibition provided artists from the entire country with their first opportunity to exhibit work representing both old and new styles. Out of 6,000 entries, 3,724 were accepted and shown in nine cities. From these, 823 works were awarded special prizes and a small number were singled out for medals.

Such official and popular success had a dramatic effect on young and older artists alike and led to a tremendous curiosity about what had recently been and was being produced in Europe and America. The works of Courbet, Millet, C'ezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Dufy, and Dali, to mention only the most obvious, were avidly studied - and, since the Chinese have no oil painting tradition older than the present century, several of these masters were adopted by them as their own.

Andrew Wyeth, in particular, has become a prime source of study and inspiration for many younger Chinese painters, not because his style is easy to copy, but because his brand of realism is precise but poetic and totally free of ideology. By studying his pictures, many Chinese artists believe they can learn to see and to transcribe the world around them a bit more vividly.

In a dramatic reversal of government policy, a large selection of recent paintings was permitted to travel to the United States for the first major exhibition of Chinese oil paintings ever to be held in the West. More than 100 oils by 83 artists, including 29 prize winners from the important 1984 show, were chosen by the Chinese Artists Association of Peking and Robert A. Hefner, whose idea it originally was, and subsequently displayed in New York's Harkness House in April of this year.

Judging by comments overheard and reported, it was an eye-opening event for most who saw it, not only because of the profusion of styles, but also because of the extraordinary level of skill demonstrated in the majority of the pictures. For pure technique, few Western exhibitions could have matched it, and even in a strictly formal and expressive sense, it had to be rated a success.

Several of the larger and more ``serious'' works, especially Mao Hongdao and Ni Fanghua's ``Unforgettable Years,'' a biting, richly detailed account of some of the hardships endured by Chinese civilians during their struggles against the Japanese in the 1930s, and Luo Zhongli's ``Spring Silkworms,'' a haunting depiction of an old woman feeding silkworms, were truly memorable. And a number of the somewhat more informal paintings such as Sun Weimin's ``On Break,'' Nie Ou's ``Backyard Stable,'' Ai Xuan's ``Stranger,'' Wang Huaiging's ``Artist's Mother,'' and Luo Erchun's ``Visiting'' would have held up beautifully in any exhibition of contemporary representational art.

Only one thing was missing: a fully realized sense of cultural identity that transcended the individual characteristics of each painter's style. That it was a concern of several of the artists was evident from the manner in which they attempted to integrate certain traditional Eastern forms, ideas, and attitudes with Western techniques and styles. A few succeeded, but only on a personal level, and always only to a degree.

But that's not surprising. After all, it takes more than a few decades of concentrated effort to evolve an authentic national ``voice'' - a fact the Chinese, with their long, great tradition of ink painting, probably realize better than anyone else.

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