In the mythology of Maoist China no event is more important than The Long March. It is the foundation story of the People’s Republic even if there is no separating fact from fiction.
The March began in October 1934 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was driven out of the small republic it had established in the southern province of Jiangxi. To escape the encircling forces of the Nationalists, the Communists headed north by a circuitous route. They travelled for a year, finally settling in the northern town of Yan’an. Although all facts are disputed, the March allegedly covered 12,500 kilometres, with the original group of 100,000 participants being reduced to 30,000.
Shen Jiawei has taken up the story at the end of the Long March, in the years 1936-37. In Brothers and Sisters, he is creating a mural-sized painting that brings together all the figures who played a role in the transformation of a weak, marginalised CCP into an all-conquering juggernaut.
Shen is one of very few artists anywhere in the world who still pursues the unfashionable genre of history painting. In western art the high-water mark for history painters was the period between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In his Discourses of 1769-90, Sir Joshua Reynolds set up a hierarchy of styles, with history painting at the top, and still life at the bottom, but this never reflected popular taste.
The term not only denotes depictions of historical events, but scenes from classical mythology and the Bible. When artists attempted to capture incidents from the distant or recent past they would invest these compositions with a noble grandeur. Generals or statesmen became super-heroes, in paintings so laden with tragedy or triumph they lapsed into melodrama.
When an artist wasn’t being histrionic, as in numerous versions of the Rape of the Sabines or the Massacre of the Innocents, there was a tendency to put everyone into rigid, unnatural poses. Look, for example, at Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787), or Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770).
Ultimately history painting was undermined by its own pomposity. This tendency reached its apogee in David’s monstrous piece of sycophancy, The Coronation of Napoleon (1807). At almost six by nine metres, it was intended to dazzle audiences with the sheer majesty and power of the self-proclaimed Emperor. The image is as specious as Napoleon’s claim on the throne: it is propaganda art.
Following the French Revolution, with the exception of a handful of masterpieces such as Goya’s The Third of May (1808) and Picasso’s Guernica (1937), most so-called history paintings have been exercises in propaganda, meant to glorify the state and its ideology. Maoist China was the greatest producer of such images, adhering to an official style of Socialist Realism that demanded positive images of smiling peasants and workers, or heroic soldiers. Most prominent of all was Mao’s own benevolent countenance, the most reproduced face of all time.
Shen Jiawei was once a propaganda artist, producing the requisite images of peasants and soldiers. One of his paintings, Standing Guard for our Great Motherland (1974), was singled out by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and reproduced on a poster that was sent all over China. The only problem was that Madame Mao felt the soldiers’ faces weren’t quite heroic enough, and had another artist make the correction.
Shen was unable to pursue a formal education until 1982, when he was part of the first intake at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, which had finally reopened following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Today the Central Academy allows students to study a range of traditional and contemporary practices, and even has a department of Experimental Art. In Shen’s day, students were given a Soviet-style education descended from the French atelier system. This meant a heavy emphasis on drawing from the plaster cast and the model, gradually mastering skills and techniques.
Those hard-won skills have served Shen well in Australia, earning him a reputation as a master portraitist who has captured everyone from Princess Mary of Denmark to John Howard. When he first came to this country in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square tragedy, he scratched out a living by drawing instant portraits at Darling Harbour.
Portraiture has paid Shen’s bills but his constant ambition has been to produce large-scale history paintings. While using the skills that are his stock-in-trade, he has always been conscious that one must avoid propaganda images that present a one-sided view of a complex issue.
His first memorable venture was a 12 metre-long painting called Red Star Over China (1987), which included portraits of numerous figures associated with the days of the Long March. He imagined it would be a controversial work, as it included people who had been officially written out of history. However, the political winds had changed direction, and the picture was accepted as a celebration of the Red Army.
He would push his luck further, with a painting called Tolerance (1988), which included portraits of important thinkers from the early Nationalist movement. This time there was no positive reception, and Shen could feel that opportunities in his home-land were narrowing.
In Australia, he would produce his most remarkable and ambitious painting, The Third World (2002) – a gallery of the heroes and villains of the 20th century, seen from a non-western perspective. Mao played a leading role, accompanied by 91 other figures including Mother Teresa, Osama Bin Laden, Pol Pot, Imelda Marcos and the corpse of Che Guevara.
In 2007 Shen repeated the process with Merdeka, a 14 metre-long panorama of Malaysian history, commissioned by businessman, Yap Lim Sen. This time there were no fewer than 261 individual portraits.
In Brothers and Sisters, Shen is re-engaging with modern Chinese history in a painting composed of three, six-panel segments, which will feature some 300 figures. At the Seymour Centre one may see the first part of this trilogy, subtitled Revolution. It includes 128 figures, 113 of them clearly recognisable. To aid identification he has even written their names on the painting in English and Chinese. The only other work on display is Spain 1937, featuring a jeep-load of artists and intellectuals who took part in the Spanish Civil War, including George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Capa.
Shen’s painting style has been described pejoratively as realistic or academic, but there is nothing remotely realistic about these impossible group portraits. A more thoughtful critic might argue that an artist who aims to engage didactically with history must also question the methods he employs rather than simply rely on conventional styles of painting. This was the view of Chinese avant-garde artist, Huang Yong Ping, when I showed him the brochure for Shen’s exhibition in Brisbane last week, during the opening of the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial.
But Shen is not about to sacrifice everything he does well in order to embrace a more experimental approach. He is obsessed with history, and follows its twists and turns with the interest of a dedicated intellectual. For Shen, it is more important to convey a strong sense of content than to worry about subverting the medium.
By putting so many diverse personalities together on one canvas Shen wants us to understand the depth and complexity of history. We know the outlines of a story, but every person brings his or her own emphasis to the way it unfolds. There are many different points of view, countless opportunities for debate and reflection. No two memories of an event are identical.
Shen is trying to convey the subjective, fallible nature of historical discourse. Even when the standard account of an incident is not infected with propaganda it is largely a matter of consensus, with no guarantee of truth. He falls back on the idea that history is writ large on the faces of those who played leading roles, inviting us to seek insights in their features and attitudes.
Shen focuses on 1936-37 because it was an eventful time that saw Chiang Kai-shek kidnapped by other nationalist generals and forced to sign a ‘united front’ against the Japanese invasion. It was also the period when Mao consolidated his hold on power, and the first concerted resistance was mounted to the Japanese occupation that had begun in 1931. Meanwhile, the American journalist, Edgar Snow, visited the Communists in Yan’an, where he gathered material for his influential book, Red Star Over China (1937).
Snow’s book played a major part in changing the image of the CCP both internationally and at home. He gave readers a gripping account of the Long March, and depicted Mao in an especially heroic light. Shen has a fascination with Snow, who remains a controversial figure. Although the journalist is completely discredited in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s 2005 biography of Mao, many historians would argue the authors have overstated their case.
The truth lies somewhere in the sum total of experience of the figures Shen brings to life in this painting. It’s a quality that cannot be extracted and pinned down. It remains tantalisingly out-of-reach; but we look, and know it exists.
Shen Jiawei: Brothers and Sisters, Part 1: Seymour Centre, Sydney University, December 5-December 17, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 15, 2012