“For the grow­ing num­ber of young artists who rejected art based on polit­i­cal themes and sought indi­vid­ual self-expression, there remained, as before, lit­tle oppor­tu­nity to exhibit their work, or to even pub­licly admit to being an artist.”

Chen Juyuan, Abstract Expres­sion lI, 1975. Ink and water­color on paper, 92 x 66 cm. Cour­tesy of the China Institute.

Bloom­ing in the Shad­ows: Unof­fi­cial Chi­nese Art, 1974–1985

Kuiyi Shen & Julia F. Andrews

In recent decades, con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art—the art pro­duced between 1985 and the present—has been widely exhib­ited in the West. Inside Out, held at Asia Soci­ety in 1998, exhib­ited Chi­nese art from the sec­ond half of the 1980s and early 1990s, and there have been many other solo and group exhi­bi­tions at venues through­out the U.S. show­ing more recent work and expand­ing into the mul­ti­ple artis­tic medi­ums in use by Chi­nese artists today. In the mean­time, the con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art world has been brought to the atten­tion of West­ern observers through sev­eral recent essays and new appear­ances in art his­tory text­books. Yet few exhi­bi­tions have asked the ques­tion of how, against the back­ground of thirty-five years of social­ist real­ism, this internationally-oriented con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art came to be. “Bloom­ing in the Shad­ows” will exam­ine work pro­duced by three sig­nif­i­cant groups of young artists in the crit­i­cal decade lead­ing up to the Com­mu­nist party’s 1985 deci­sion to allow mod­ern artis­tic practices.

The work in this exhi­bi­tion was cre­ated between 1974, the late Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion period, and 1985, when the avant-garde move­ment (or ’85 Move­ment) was launched. Chi­nese art in the Mao period, and par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, had become pure polit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda because nor­mal artis­tic prac­tice was for­bid­den both in insti­tu­tional set­tings and for indi­vid­ual artists. Art was to serve the work­ers, peas­ants, and sol­diers, both by its didac­tic theme and its real­is­tic (or social­ist real­ist) style. Some young artists and writ­ers began a quiet rebel­lion in the late years of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, one imple­mented on small, eas­ily con­cealed sheets of paper or card­board, and shown only to the most trusted of friends. The 1976 death of Mao and the arrest of Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion lead­ers was an ide­o­log­i­cal, con­cep­tual, and psy­cho­log­i­cal turn­ing point for many of China’s artists. Although the two-year rule of Mao’s direct suc­ces­sor, Hua Guofeng, saw the con­tin­u­a­tion of Mao’s polit­i­cal and cul­tural poli­cies, indi­vid­ual artists began to break their polit­i­cal shack­les and ven­ture into pre­vi­ously for­bid­den realms of per­sonal artis­tic free­dom. How­ever, after their long period of iso­la­tion, Chi­nese artists had lost touch with the out­side world. Most of the artists rep­re­sented in this exhi­bi­tion were born after the estab­lish­ment of the People’s Repub­lic of China, and had lived their entire lives under Mao. What artis­tic lan­guage could they use to express their new concerns?

Although hard-line poli­cies remained the offi­cial line after the arrest of the Gang of Four, in art schools and other venues a slight loos­en­ing of con­trols allowed some artis­tic explo­ration to occur. At the end of 1978, when Hua Guofeng stepped down and Deng Xiaoping’s open door pol­icy won a polit­i­cal vic­tory, the cul­tural world shared the exhil­a­ra­tion of the short-lived Bei­jing Spring, a period when it seemed as though any­thing might be pos­si­ble. And still, as Deng Xiaop­ing con­sol­i­dated his power, this open­ness soon van­ished, and the doors to artis­tic inno­va­tion seemed to slam shut. Art col­leges con­tin­ued to require grad­u­ates to paint in the same strongly real­is­tic styles that had been prac­ticed in the pre­vi­ous three decades and to dis­play mas­tery in paint­ing impor­tant polit­i­cal themes, so– called “the­matic” fig­ure paint­ings, even if they some­times allowed a crit­i­cal approach to the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. The art exhi­bi­tion sys­tem was still under the con­trol of the offi­cial artists asso­ci­a­tions at the national and local lev­els and con­tin­ued to be judged by social­ist real­ist stan­dards. For the grow­ing num­ber of young artists who rejected art based on polit­i­cal themes and sought indi­vid­ual self-expression, there remained, as before, lit­tle oppor­tu­nity to exhibit their work, or to even pub­licly admit to being an artist. Thus, while the lyri­cal work they cre­ated was largely decrim­i­nal­ized, they con­tin­ued to work in an under­ground art world.
Nev­er­the­less, the unwa­ver­ing ide­al­ism and inde­pen­dence of artists of this decade paved the way for the emer­gence in the mid-1980s, of the new wave art move­ment. With their rejec­tion of polit­i­cal themes, these artists turned to land­scapes, por­traits, still-lifes, and other osten­si­bly apo­lit­i­cal sub­jects to seek for­mal beauty. In a highly polit­i­cally charged envi­ron­ment, this act of drop­ping out was itself extremely polit­i­cal. Among the artists rep­re­sented in “Bloom­ing in the Shad­ows”, the No Names retained an inter­est in rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the Stars turned in a more West­ern, mod­ernist direc­tion, absorb­ing anew the long-prohibited pro­gres­sive art styles devel­oped in Europe in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, includ­ing inter­est in sur­re­al­ism, cubism, and other move­ments, and the artists of the Grass Soci­ety, who were trained in the native medium of ink and color on paper, tried to leave behind both the legacy of social­ist real­ism and the bur­dens of tra­di­tion by turn­ing to new forms of abstract ink painting.

The three groups rep­re­sented in this pro­posed exhi­bi­tion, the No Names, the Stars, and the Grass Soci­ety, exem­plify three impor­tant trends, and also the shared expe­ri­ence of push­ing beyond Mao­ism in the early post-Cultural Rev­o­lu­tion era. All three groups were com­prised of artists who were out­side the offi­cial art struc­tures of the P.R.C. The artists were of the “sent-down youth” gen­er­a­tion of Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion exile, and were work­ing in state fac­to­ries or on farms in remote areas. The No Name group was for­mally founded in 1979 by young artists who were mainly natives of Bei­jing, although their artis­tic prac­tice can be traced back to ear­lier years. They held exhi­bi­tions in pub­lic twice, in 1979 and 1981. Their art was usu­ally com­prised of land­scapes, still-lifes, and non-political fig­ure paint­ings. Most of their works are small-sized water­col­ors, oils, and gouaches on inex­pen­sive paper and card­board, some­times even on cut up shoe-boxes. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive artists of this group include Li Shan, Liu Shi, Ma Kelu, Shi Zhenyu, Wang Aihe, Wei Hai, Yang Yushu, Zhang Wei, Zhao Wen­liang, Zheng Ziyan, and Zheng Zigang. The sec­ond group, the Stars, may be more famil­iar to most West­ern audi­ences because of the well-publicized polit­i­cal protest held after their first exhi­bi­tion was banned by the author­i­ties. This group of ama­teur artists was more explic­itly Western-oriented and cos­mopoli­tan in their art works, and much more polit­i­cal, in an oppo­si­tional posi­tion. Their work ranges widely in medium, includ­ing sculp­ture, oil paint­ing, water­color, prints, and draw­ings. They also held two exhi­bi­tions: their first, in late Sep­tem­ber, 1979, was hung ille­gally on the fence out­side the China National Art Gallery, inside which they were not, at that time, allowed to show. The show was sub­se­quently re-hung with offi­cial per­mis­sion at Bei­hai park. Their sec­ond exhi­bi­tion, in the fall of 1980, stirred such con­tro­versy that a young critic who wrote a favor­able review was fired from his job at the party art jour­nal. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive artists of this group include Wang Keping, Qu Leilei, Huang Rui, Yan Li, Ma Desh­eng, Mao Lizi, Li Shuang, and Ai Wei­wei. The third group, the Grass Soci­ety, was based in Shang­hai, out­side the polit­i­cal cen­ter of the day. This group of ink painters rejected both social­ist real­ism and the tra­di­tional paint­ing that had flour­ished in pre-Cultural Rev­o­lu­tion Shang­hai [fig.59]. They brought abstract con­cepts, to which they had been newly exposed, and water­color tech­niques into their work on Chi­nese paper. Hold­ing their first exhi­bi­tion in 1980 in Shang­hai, they con­tin­ued to exhibit sev­eral times in sub­se­quent years. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive artists of their group are Qiu Deshu, Chen Jial­ing, Chen Juyuan, Jiang Defu, and Guo Runlin.

These three groups, although some­what dif­fer­ent in their artis­tic approaches, shared a pio­neer­ing role in push­ing Chi­nese art beyond the bor­ders of the social­ist real­ism. Devel­oped ini­tially by unof­fi­cial artists, this oppo­si­tional approach was absorbed into the main­stream offi­cial art world in the mid-1980s, ini­ti­at­ing a major change in atti­tude that shook the Chi­nese art world to its foun­da­tions. Their prac­tices set the foun­da­tion for the younger gen­er­a­tion who emerged from the aca­d­e­mic world around 1985.

The art­works for this pro­posed exhi­bi­tion will come mainly from two sources, pri­vate col­lec­tors and the artists them­selves. This body of work was, in large part, meant to be viewed in a domes­tic set­ting, and is thus suit­able to the inti­mate exhi­bi­tion space of the China Insti­tute gallery.