In: Fine art
China’s recent history is one full of social and political chaos. Chairman Mao Zedong resided as the country’s communist leader for nearly thirty years, responsible for the founding the People’s Republic of China, sending China into a deep economic crisis, and infamously inciting the riotous Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao had set out to purge the country of what he called “impure elements.” The youth of China backed Mao as they flooded across the country murdering teachers, closing schools, denouncing family members, burning books, and destroying China’s history. Artist were cast out of society and only those who attended nationalized art schools and produced works in a factory-like manner with politically expedient content, were permitted. Today, we see how Chinese artists critique the Cultural Revolution and the Communist Party, shedding light on China’s societal issues, through their creative individuality.
Hung Liu was born shortly after the Chinese Civil War in 1948. She was a prolific student and studied at the best private schools China had to offer. As the Cultural Revolution began, Liu was sent to be “re-educated” in a rural village. Before leaving Beijing, she borrowed a camera from a friend. She used this camera to take photos of villagers, their families, and their day to day struggles. At this point in time, the Cultural Revolution was in full bloom and Chinese culture was being threatened to extinction. Hung Liu’s photographs of those villagers served as a preservation of those individuals and to their culture.
After the Revolution, Liu went on to study fine arts and earned a her graduate degree in Muralist Painting. For three years she painted political propaganda in the Soviet Realist style, all the while secretly painting landscapes with miniature tools and paints she herself had made. Hung Liu desperately wanted artistic freedom and was granted just that when she was given permission to attend the University of California San Diego in 1983.
Liu often paints from photographs of Chinese social outcasts: prostitutes, laborers, and prisoners. The realistic nature and size of her characters reflect her practice in Soviet Realism and Muralism. However, she manipulates the image by running paint down the canvas, which gives the effect of a photograph faded by time. The characters in each piece look as though they are disintegrating right before our eyes; a possible commentary on the lives lost and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.
Hung Liu recently retired from her position as a professor at Mills College, but she continues to paint and has worldwide exhibitions.
Ma Desheng was a self taught artist, mainly because he was deemed unfit to be trained in fine arts at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Desheng worked as an industrial draftsman and woodblock print artist, using traditional Chinese ink.
Desheng produced a series of images of rock-like figures and portrayals of China’s working class. These images were stark contradictions to the suppressive propaganda that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were feeding the people.
His early productions were un-romanticized images that displayed the realities of what was happening to China. The dark rigid lines evoke a sense of inner turmoil, similar to that of the artwork of the German artists, Käthe Kollwitz or Edvard Munch.
In 1970, Ma Desheng was influential in the founding of Star Group ( or Xing Xing). This group consisted of self taught, Western-influenced artists who fought for individualism and liberation against the Cultural Revolution. Ma Desheng and the Star Group bravely defied the government when they put on an exhibition of their own work across the street from the National Art Museum in Beijing. It was, of course, shut down by authorities and Ma was arrested for his involvement in organizing such an exhibit.The Star Group went on to lead a rally against the authorities and were successful in opening a second show; some say it was this rally that helped Chinese society become more culturally open.
Not long after Star Group’s second show, Ma Desheng moved to Europe, as did many of the other members. He continues to live and work in Paris, but there is no doubt that his passionate commitment to freedom of expression helped pave the way for future Chinese artists.
One of China’s most well known and successful artists, Zhang Xiaogang, was also a witness to China’s Cultural Revolution. His parents were government officials but were sent away to be “re-educated” at the height of the Revolution—an event that greatly affects his work.
He studied at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts after the Cultural Revolution ended, but his professors were persistent in teaching the style of Soviet Realism. Zhang resisted this style and any philosophy that had to do with collectiveness in society. He founded a group focused on the importance of individualism in philosophy and art called the Southwest Art Group. Though somewhat successful with nearly eighty artists in the group, the Tiananmen Square incident happened not long after and the era of liberal reform ceased completely.
It wasn’t until 1992 when Zhang returned from Germany after 3 months that he knew exactly what he wanted to paint. He stated that he “could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective.” His portrayals of those contradictions are what make his paintings so eerily captivating. Most of his work is themed after family photographs but there is always some sort of strange mark or difference in color that makes them unique to one another. The child, who is typically centered, is the most defined. This can be taken as Zhang’s commentary on the youth of the Cultural Revolution and their willingness to disown their families and personal histories.
Zhang Xiaogang’s artwork has shown world wide and he is easily one of the most prominent Chinese contemporary artist of today.
Beijing-based artist, Yue Minjun, also captures that theme of contradiction that Zhang Xiaogang displays. Yue Minjun was born in 1962 and studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University in 1985. His work is done in a style that has been coined as “Cynical Realism,” and they are iconically uncomfortable. Most of the paintings are self-portraits of the artist with pink skin, laughing maniacally in surreal backgrounds while bent over in an attempt to cover an exposed body, vulnerable in only underwear.
These cartoon like images are politically pointed at the Cultural Revolution and China today. Minjun states that “…laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us.” This laughter evokes a strange feeling to the viewer. You feel as if you were looking at someone that had just gone through a mental breakdown and had experienced an intense amount of pain, dehumanized, but has an odd instinct to laugh. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that, this is how Minjun see’s the China today; as society that has been through so much within recent years but does not know how to deal appropriately with the pain.
The now world renowned artist, Xu Bing, was in high school when the Cultural Revolution broke out. Determined to stay in Beijing and continue his studies, he agreed to use his talents in calligraphy to create political propaganda. After he graduated, he was sent to the countryside to work in the fields and was not able to return until the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Xu was accepted into Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts the following year to study printmaking.
The relationship between words and interpretation seems to be the core theme in Xu Bing’s work. In his grandiose installation, “Book from the Sky,” large scrolls hang from the ceiling and traditionally bound books and newspapers line the floor and walls, all stamped with woodblocks carved with made-up, nonsensical Chinese characters. The fact that nothing is literally being said in this piece results in many different interpretations. Is the installation a focus on Chinese tradition versus modern art? Is it a questioning of how different cultures perceive one another? Is it a commentary on the manipulation of words to achieve power, like in Mao’s case? Or is it a meaningless study of form and repetition? There are grounds for each of these questions within the piece and its intriguing quality is one of the reasons “Book from Sky” is such an international hit within the art world.
Cai Guo-Qiang is probably best known around the world for his firework show at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but Cai’s artistry goes far beyond his pyrotechnic displays. He studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1981 through 1985, which is evident in the spatial rendering seen in his large installations, paintings and performance pieces.
One of his most famous pieces was an installation he was commissioned to do for the 48th Venice Biennale, entitled, “Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard.” The installation consisted of 114 clay sculptures of peasants and laborers interspersed within the gallery’s setting.The piece created quite the stir amongst the art world as it closely resembled the famous Social Realist sculpture “Rent Collection Courtyard”: a highly political series of sculptures created during the Cultural Revolution. The stir wasn’t only because of Cai’s replica of the Chinese classic, but because he choose a material that would cause the sculptures to disintegrate as the show went on; a possible statement on Mao’s promises to the Chinese people and the ephemerality of their political and social structures.
Many of Cai Guo-Qiang works seem to embody a theme of unforeseen fate. In many of his paintings, he will scatter gunpowder on an already painted canvas, and ignite it. The result displays a combination of the controlled color of the actual paint, and the sporadic, random markings of the burnt gunpowder. This theme is also evident in his installation “Head On” where sculptures of wolves take off running and soaring through the air. The momentum of the piece is brutally interrupted as the wolves run, “head on,” into a wall a plexi glass and fall gracelessly to the floor.
It is often said that an artist’s role in society is to be instrument of the time; to reflect society back to itself, to be a catalyst of change, and to articulate culture. It is fair to say that these artists, and many other Chinese artists, are doing just that.
July 14, 2016
The groundbreaking exhibition of Degas’s monotypes, “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” which is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, presents Edgar Degas to the public in a new light. This incredible exhibition, the first comprehensive show of Degas monotypes in over half a century, characterizes one of the most well known artists in the history of art as an innovator and experimenter.
In two short periods from the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s, Degas produced over 300 of these exceptional works on paper. Hundreds more are thought to have existed but were destroyed by Degas’s brother after his death. Although these works are numerous, the majority of them were never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Therefore, these unique works are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Perhaps deemed too personal, scandalous, or experimental to be viewed by a 19th century audience, two centuries later they still retain their ability to both shock and intrigue viewers. The subjects explored by Degas in this experimental medium are wide ranging, from singers at café-concerts to prostitutes and smoke stacks; however, like his more famous paintings and pastels, the subjects which attracted Degas the most are those which capture elements of modern life in Paris.
While some of the subjects are scandalous, the medium Degas employs, monotype, is equally surprising. Although Degas himself explained the process of monotype simply as “drawing made with greasy ink and put through a press,” monotype is in fact a complex and contradictory medium.1 Essentially, a monotype is a print. However, the fact that it is mono, or singular, inherently defies the supposed purpose of printmaking, which is to make many copies to be distributed or reproduced. The process of creating a monotype is also very different from other printmaking processes in that the image transferred from the plate to the page is not carved into a woodblock or etched into a copper plate, but simply painted on the surface using ink, or in some of Degas’s later monotypes, oil paint, allowing the image to be changed up until it is fed into the press. This aspect of the monotype process lends the medium to more spontaneous production, perfectly in sync with the spontaneity that Degas hoped to capture in his images.
Most of the works in the exhibition are the first version, however, some are “cognates,” rare second prints made from the original plate. These second images are much lighter than the first, since most of the ink went into the first image. While the cognates are essentially the same image, Degas edited them using pastel, gouache, or event sometimes oil paint to make them entirely new compositions.
This dynamic between originality and reproduction that defines Degas monotypes can be best seen in a pair of works from the exhibition, which, taken from the same plate, depict the same subject and composition; however, they have almost nothing in common. Both plates show a singer at a café-concert, the first in black and white, characterized by this juxtaposition of light and shadow, emphasized by the five bright orbs of electric lights behind the singer. These lights, which illuminate the scene, also distort it, rendering the singer’s face almost in caricature as her arm bends unnaturally into the hazy, incomprehensible space of the café-concert. In the second version, which Degas has altered using pastel, both the figures and forms of the composition are much more solidly defined. Here, both women are clearly rendered in much more detail than in the hazy original. The five light orbs have been traded in for one fancy electric light on the back wall, immediately elevating the level of the establishment from the mysterious original. When looking at these works side by side in the gallery one would never suspect that they are in fact the same work; however, that paradox between originality and reproduction seems to be at the heart of what Degas is trying to achieve with his monotypes.
The brothel monotypes have become infamous within Degas’s oeuvre amongst scholars and, now that they have again been exhibited to the public, they have become a controversial highlight of the exhibition. They present the viewer with a true conundrum as to how to approach the style and subject matter. Some argue that they provide a sympathetic look into the realities of 19th century prostitution, a widespread industry in Paris at the time, while others have seen these works as voyeuristic and “creepy.” Of the dozen or so of the brothel monotypes on view in this exhibition, one of the most striking is The Name day of the Madam (La fête de la patronne). This work shows a group of prostitutes celebrating the birthday of the madam. The women, who are shown in various states of undress, present the madam with flowers. It is these moments that depict the behind the scenes lives of such women, rather than the ones which illustrate them at work, which make them something truly unique.
Like many of his contemporaries, as well as many artists working today, one of Degas main aims was to create works which engaged with and reflected the society in which he lived. His monotypes clearly reflect modernity not only in the subjects, but also the medium of monotype itself, and the techniques he used to achieve such varied and incredible effects relate directly to the larger idea of capturing modern life in 19th century Paris. “His loose brushwork turned out to be the perfect vehicle for capturing both ballerinas in motion and the bustle of city life—and the relaxed linearity was well-suited for his foray into caricature, including suggesting the financial exchange at the heart of prostitution. Degas’s method of incising into the greasy pigment offered a way to render the artificial lighting that was not only illuminating Paris in new and exciting ways but changing vision itself.”2
These haunting works present the often romanticized, but gritty reality of life in 19th century Paris and paint Degas as a technical innovator and experimenter in the art of printmaking.
“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through July 24th.
- Buchberg, Karl, and Laura Neufeld, “Indelible Ink: Degas’s Methods and Materials,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print. P. 47.
- Hauptman, Jodi, “Introduction,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. P. 17. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print.
March 29, 2016
“Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change” on view at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia explores the dynamic relationship between Cubism and classicism in the works of Pablo Picasso, particularly those produced in the years surrounding World War I. The Barnes has assembled a truly impressive show, which provides wonderful examples of the different media and modes in which Picasso was working throughout this period.
This landmark exhibition at The Barnes marks one of the foundation’s first forays into the world of temporary exhibitions. The collection, assembled by Dr. Alfred Barnes, comprises arguably the best collection of Impressionist and early Modern works in the United States. The collection is also notorious for its legal complexity. The collection came with a series of regulations that require the collection to stay exactly as Dr. Barnes arranged it, and that the works cannot be moved or lent. These restrictions made the 2012 move from the original location, Dr. Barnes’s home in Marion, Pennsylvania, to the new building in center-city Philadelphia, highly controversial. With more than 40 works by Picasso in the permanent collection, the exhibition provides an interesting insight into Picasso’s enormous body of work.
While perhaps best known by the general public for his 1930’s quasi-Surrealist portraits, Picasso’s oeuvre in fact spans more than 70 years and is characterized by many different periods and styles that often overlap or are in dialogue with one another. This ability to work in different media simultaneously truly distinguishes Picasso from his contemporaries. The exhibition focuses in on a 12 year window in Picasso’s career, between 1912-1924.
The show moves chronologically, opening with some incredible examples of Picasso’s Synthetic Cubist works from before the war.
While these Cubist works were celebrated within artistic circles before World War I, once the war begun, sentiments changed. The exhibition presents this shift with a detailed yet concise video, which includes photographs, cartoons, and newspaper clippings from the period to illustrate the anti-German sentiments that swept Paris and how this impacted Cubism. In short, it explains that during World War I, Cubism came to be seen as unpatriotic and German. In this movement of extreme nationalistic fervor, it was classicizing art that was seen as patriotic, upholding tradition of classical French painting.
This show provides multiple examples of how Cubist artists reacted to anti-Cubist sentiments. Some of the Cubist artists, like Jean Metzinger, choose to create a special genre of “nationalist Cubism,” as exemplified by his Soldier at Game of Chess (c. 1915) which uses a Cubist technique to depict nationalistic and patriotic subject matter. Others, like Picasso, went in a different direction, choosing to explore other more naturalistic modes. The year 1914 marks a shift towards naturalism in Picasso’s works, moving away from the highly abstract forms of early Cubism.
One of the most exciting aspects of this exhibition is the inclusion of Picasso’s whimsically abstract costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes performance Parade in 1917. The exhibition introduces these works to a larger public using the idea of avant-garde ballet itself as an example of this juxtaposition of abstraction and classicism that arises in Picasso’s work during and after the war. The fanciful and abstract constructions Picasso designed, according to the wall description, to “disrupt the classical body with Cubist forms.” While the scenery is more classical, the costumes are Cubist paintings come to life. The exhibition includes photographs of all the costumes as well as monumental reconstructions of three of the costumes: the American businessman, the Horse, and the French businessman, which tower over the viewer on a faux stage, a photograph of the original backdrop painted by Picasso behind them.
The dynamic that this exhibition illustrates is best seen in the comparison made towards the end of the show between Picasso’s Pierrot and his Harlequin with a Violin both from 1918. Pierrot is an example of the classicizing mode Picasso adopted at the end of World War I. The figure is sculptural and naturalistic, yet somewhat simplified. There is an attempt to suggest depth and volume using bright color, which is interesting in comparison to the utter flatness of his Harlequin with a Violin right next to it. The untrained eye would guess that these works were done by different artists, let alone the same artist in the same year. But that’s the genius of Picasso.
The exhibition concludes with some of Picasso’s beautiful neo-classical works from the period following World War I. These enormous, sculptural women dressed in fresh white togas represent a return to interest in classicism following the destruction of the Great War, for example his Seated Woman of 1920.
By including the Parade costumes, works by other Cubist painters, as well as a series of photographs taken by Jean Cocteau of Picasso and other members of the Parisian avant-garde in Montparnasse in 1917, the exhibition contextualizes Picasso’s work from this period and provides a glimpse into many interesting and unknown aspects of Picasso’s life and career.
Entertaining and enlightening, “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change” on through May 21st is a visual delight and well worth the trip.