Art Essays

Shen Jiawei: From Mao to Now

Published November 13, 2010
Shen Jiawei, Standing Guard for our Great Motherland, 1974

It’s a sign of our ignorance about China that the term “Cultural Revolution” is used so promiscuously in the mass media. Art exhibitions, fashion shows, almost anything may be described by this catchphrase, which obviously seems ‘cool’ to a lot of people. But as Mao Zedong famously said: “a revolution is not a tea party.” People are killed, society is turned upside down; the worst crimes are perpetrated in the name of a better future.
Historians in China and the west are still trying to come to terms with that period of upheaval from 1966-76 called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. No matter how much one reads about this brutal era, the facts still beggar the imagination. The carnage was initiated by Mao and a small band of cronies later known as the Gang of Four. The aim was to reaffirm the Chairman’s God-like status at a time when he was being reduced to the role of a Party figurehead.
“Don’t be afraid of people making trouble,” Mao told army officers. “The bigger the trouble gets, the longer the trouble lasts, the better.”
A nation of a billion people was viewed as a blank page upon which “Mao Zedong thought” could be freshly inscribed. The Chairman’s sycophantic deputy, Lin Biao, added his own wisdom, announcing: “The more one studies the narrower one’s mind gets.”
Mao mobilised the power of youth and watched while students turned on their teachers and children denounced parents. To the self-styled Red Guards everything “old” was fit for destruction, every deviation from the revolutionary line was punishable by beatings and death.
Nobody knows just how many people died, how many books, artworks, temples and priceless documents were destroyed while the authorities turned a blind eye.
Shen Jaiwei was eighteen years old when the Cultural Revolution broke out. He was living in Jiaxing, not far from Shanghai, studying fine art in preparation for admission to college. Within a few months all the universities were closed and Jiawei was swept up in the excitement. He became a team leader in the Red Guards, producing propaganda paintings and portraits of Mao.
For many of his generation the beginning of the Cultural Revolution is remembered as an exhilarating time, but even in those days Jiawei was more interested in reading books than burning them. Within a year or so he had withdrawn from the movement and was making work for the Peoples Liberation Army. By 1970 he found himself in Heilongjiang province on the Russian border. There he worked as a propaganda artist, entering paintings in national competitions.
In 1974 his picture, Standing guard for our great motherland was praised by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and acquired for the National Art Museum. When he saw the work on display in the museum Jiawei was shocked to find the soldiers’ faces had been repainted to make them look more heroic. In this new guise the painting was reproduced in poster form and sent all over China. A recent exhibition at Sydney University called China and Revolution contained versions of this poster. There are more to be found, along with preliminary studies and sketches, in the survey exhibition, Shen Jiawei: From Mao to Now 1961-2010, at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery.
The actual painting was dumped from the museum after the fall of the Gang of Four and recovered by the artist from a rubbish dump in 1981. He restored the work and recently sold it at auction for a sizeable sum, which he is using to build a large new studio in Bundeena.
It was not until 1982, at the age of 34, that Jiawei was able to resume the studies interrupted in his teens. He was in the first intake of students at the reopened Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he slaved away at an old-fashioned, Soviet style program of drawing from the plaster cast and the model. He honed his skills, read as widely as possible, and felt a growing sense of political optimism as China began to dream of a democratic future.
Already eager to paint mural-sized works, he produced Red Star Over China, a 12-metre-long celebration of the early days of the PLA. The picture flouted Maoist orthodoxy, but to his surprise it was acclaimed and acquired by the state.
His next venture into this area was a painting called Tolerance, which trod more dangerous ground by portraying figures from China’s nationalist movement of the early twentieth century who had been airbrushed from history. The political atmosphere was changing, and would soon come to a head in the events of July 1989 in Tiananmen Square. When the crisis struck, Jiawei was visiting Australia as a student of English. He knew he could not go back to Beijing, and began a precarious existence as a portrait sketcher at Darling Harbour. It would be two and a half years before he would be reunited with his wife and daughter.
In the years that followed, Jiawei has forged an extraordinary career. His first big break was winning the Mary MacKillop Art Award in 1995, which saw him receive a medal from Pope John Paul II. Since then he has become a well-known portraitist and a regular entrant in the Archibald Prize. His picture of AGNSW director, Edmund Capon, may currently be seen in the opening exhibition of the Chinalink Gallery in Redfern, a new not-for-profit venture by the entrepreneurial David Chang, that brings together the talents of 26 Chinese-Australian artists in an amazingly eclectic overview.
Jiawei’s proficiency as a portraitist has tended to obscure the fact that his core works are ambitious, large-scale history paintings with a highly critical – indeed satirical – slant on the great events and the great figures.
His masterpiece in this regard is probably The Third World (2002), which incorporates 93 individual portraits of political heroes and villains. This work is now overseas and could not be borrowed for the Hazelhurst show, but it is not such a big step to a painting such as Imperial Palanquin, after Yan Liben (2002), in the White Rabbit Collection. This picture, which borrows from a famous Chinese court painting of 641 CE, portrays Mao as the emperor, surrounded by courtesans, with Zhou Enlai, Nixon and Kissenger as smiling courtiers, diminishing in size according to their relative importance.
For all his success Jiawei is also one of the most misunderstood painters at work in this country, being routinely dismissed as an academic realist. This conclusion is based on his activities as a portraitist, taking no account of the history paintings or the many surreal touches in his work that could never be viewed as pure realism. I’ve discussed this further in an essay written for the catalogue of this show.
There is a strange but widespread belief that an artist with superb technical abilities must be a relic of the dark ages. At the same time, Jiawei’s willingness to tackle universal topics is anathema to those who prefer to see art in personal rather than public terms.
No-one could be a better representative of this trend than British art celebrity, Tracey Emin, who held an admiring audience in thrall at the Art Gallery of NSW last weekend while she talked about how much money she has, her eighteenth century house in London, her country estate in France, her big new studio that she intends turning into a museum to herself, her boat, her three honorary PhDs, and so on. At the age of 47, she finally admits there is something outside of herself. The proof is that her most recent self-portrait drawings, being showing with, also incorporate rooms.
Emin is internationally known for her miserable self-destructive youth, which she has successfully transformed into a bourgeois wet dream. It’s no big deal that she has been successful, but it is pathetic that the material trappings of success play such a huge role in defining her persona. Whatever artistic talent she may have is now inseparable from her talent for self-promotion. No matter how difficult her early life, Emin never had to live through a time when political violence, vandalism and murder were everyday occurrences. The dictator, Margaret Thatcher, never forced her to suspend her art education for sixteen years, or reside in an army camp in China’s frozen north. She has turned squalor into the kind of mock-tragedy we love to read about in trashy magazines. While she was getting drunk in Margate, Red Guards were beating people to death in Beijing.
It will be objected that there is no basis for such comparisons, but It helps to remember this time-line when we think about the ease with which we swallow a rags-to-riches story and forget the huge dramas that occurred much closer to home. Shen Jiawei’s art emerges from a culture steeped in unimaginable bloodshed and hardship, but his approach is sardonic, almost Olympian. His bad career move has been to see the history of the planet as slightly more important than the history of one’s self.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 13, 2010
Shen Jiawei: From Mao to Now
Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, October 16 – November 28, 2010