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Art Essays

Newsletter 262

Published November 24, 2018
Shen Jiawei's 'Brothers & Sisters' (detail) ... a who's who of modern Chinese history

After eight years of work it seems almost tragic that Jaiwei Shen’s monumental painting, Brothers and Sisters: China in July 1936 – June 1937is being shown for only two weeks at the China Cultural Centre in Sydney (until 30 November). The work has been exhibited in installments but this is the first time one can view the completed version. It clocks in at 198 X 3288 cms, divided into 24 panels and three sections: Revolution, Resistance, Renaissance.

There are more than 460 figures in this endurance feat of a painting which commemorates that moment at the end of the Long March when the Communists and the Nationalists agreed to put aside their differences (temporarily) to fight the Japanese invader. Shen has a predilection for these gigantic team pictures which he views as an updated form of history painting. Some complain about his ‘realistic’ style but there’s nothing remotely realistic about putting more than 400 diverse characters together in one picture.

I doubt that anybody in the world today is painting works of comparable scale and ambition, let alone works that try to engage with the great events of modern history. As someone with an interest in Chinese history I’ve always been fascinated by such paintings, but even if you think – along with Henry Ford and Donald Trump – that history is bunk, you may still be bowled over by these human panoramas. It’s good to see the perenially cautious China Cultural Centre showing such a work, but it would have been great if it remained on the walls for another few weeks.

Another form of political art features in this week’s art column in which I’m finally getting to grips with the Museum of Contemporary Art’s great David Goldblatt retrospective. Goldblatt, who died only months before this show opened, was the photographer who gave us the most complete and devastating record of the Apartheid era in South Africa. The MCA show, put together by Rachael Kent, is the most comprehensive survey of his work ever mounted, including many images that reveal a more playful and experimental aspect of Goldblatt’s career. The best of these photos, such as Hold-up in Hillview, are iconic, but image for image it’s a breathtaking collection.

There were a few candidates for the movie review this week, but I went with Steve McQueen’s Widows– partly because there’s a growing ‘buzz’ around the film – or so I’m told by my editors. I’ve never been a big fan of McQueen’s work, but he seems to get better all the time, and Widowsis arguably his best, most accessible feature.

Ostensibly a heist film it’s a story with a powerful political subplot that manages to stay on the right side of credible. I suspect this is partly because of the skills of scriptwriter, Gillian Flynn, and partly because political reality in the United States has become so bizarre and fantastic that fiction can barely keep up.