In the National Art Museum in Beijing, the walls are loaded with smiles. Mao is smiling. The threadbare peasants are smiling. The farm-girls are smiling. The new president Xi Jinping, just chosen on March 14, 2013, is smiling. A guy who’s out cold and has a bunch of doctors operating on his tummy is smiling. Country folks standing in front of Mao’s portrait above the Forbidden City Gate off Tiananmen Square are smiling.
The mostly Chinese visitors are also smiling and talking loudly on cellphones. They’re also snapping pictures, flash and all. As I pass under a sign that reads in English, “Oil painting taking roots in China,” I’m wondering what all these folks must be thinking.
Pretty well everything is in Chinese so I’m not able to tell the names of the painters or the titles of their work. One thing I can say, though — it’s pretty terrific stuff.
The work ranges from giant epics depicting high points in recent Chinese history — to sensitive portraits of both common folks and high officials. Some of the oils are loaded with wonderful impasto; others are slick and posterized. A lot of them are painted in magic-hour light. I kept thinking these painters are where the Russians were forty years ago, but this work has its own unique charm. While individual styles are evident, these painters are well-schooled in Western and Classical painting traditions. For the most part, they stroke with élan and confidence. It’s hard to find drawing faults. As everyone was talking loudly, I shouted, “These artists can draw!” as loudly as seemed appropriate for the occasion, but no one paid any attention to my assessment. There are 1.4 billion Chinese.
If any of these folks were to wander over to our side of the puddle to take in the MOMA or the Guggenheim, I have the distinct feeling they might think we were all certified nutbars. But I can’t tell — they’re all smiling and, besides, this is just my opinion.
PS: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” (Lao Tzu, 6th century BCE)
Esoterica: I had no feelings that any of this work was laboured or coerced. Craftsmen and craftswomen were simply trying to get things right. I saw little evidence of bad passages, cover-ups or major compositional boo-boos. And I sure looked hard. Wearied after several hours, I retreated to a quiet corner with herbal tea and my Lao Tzu. I think he’s still at work over here: “The master makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.” (Lao Tzu)
National Art Museum of China
by Jim Jordan, Orinda, CA, USA
Take a look at Wanxin Zhang and Hung Liu, the first a sculptor, the second a painter. They are Chinese artists who came to America after going through the Socialist Realism educational system in their home country. They received further education in the United States and benefited from it and the freedom to express themselves more freely, but are so accomplished because of the fundamentals they received in China. I am in awe of their art.
Eastern painters move west
by Mike Jorden, Osoyoos, BC, Canada
The classical training of the current generation of Chinese painters is evidenced in their strong work. In my area of interest, the field of western and southwest art, a small number of Chinese ex-pats are achieving notable successes in a distinctly North American genre:
Z.S. Liang, Mian Situ, Calvin Liang, Hung Liu and others. They are having an impact through the sheer power of their exceptional painting skills and what appears to be a fascination with the figure and narrative line in their work. Whether the subject matter is your thing or not, the quality is impressive.
(RG note) Thanks, Mike and Jim. We often receive more than one letter with similar points of view. We seldom receive more than one letter with similar points of view from subscribers with similar names. (However, we recently received four similar letters in one day from artists by the name of Smith (one was Schmidt). Though we do not often publish all similar letters at one time, we welcome similar points of view because they help us determine trends. We carefully archive all letters for possible future use.
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Art with an agenda
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
While I appreciate the wonderful adherence to the traditional techniques in China, it is sad that much of this ‘art’ has been used to glorify what is really a police state and gloss over unpleasant and oftentimes criminal reality.
Ai Weiwei, a famous Chinese dissident and artist, has a diorama at the Venice Biennale documenting his 81 days under arrest in China. He was imprisoned in a small room, where guards watched his every move, even going to the bathroom. He was also severely injured when Chinese police hit him with a nightstick after he protested and investigated the poor handling of the Sichuan earthquake.
The Chinese art I appreciate most is the art before western art entered the scene. Readers should consider visiting the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to see Chinese art at its most sublime and with no agendas.
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Why are they smiling?
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA
Your report from China and your comment, “They’re all smiling,” inevitably reminded me of an old joke from the newly united Germany (primarily the Western part) in the ’90s. The surprising fact was that most of the West Germans were quite unhappy when they were suddenly inundated by their poor cousins from the East, and when they had to foot the bill for the upgrading of the Eastern economy and infrastructure. The joke question was, “Why are the Chinese always smiling?” The answer was, “Because they still have their wall.” The joke made everybody cringe because it had such an uncomfortable element of truth.
Stolen art from China
by Yvonne Morrish, Kelowna, BC, Canada
When the Chinese stole art and copied it from the Internet, I was one of the victims. I have never forgotten this injustice. You tried hard to try and correct the situation but nothing was ever done about it. This art is everywhere, being sold in big chain stores and it’s a crime.
(RG note) Thanks, Yvonne. Something was done about it, even though the result was temporary. Approximately 600 of our subscribers whose art was advertised on the Chinese “Arch World” site bombarded them with requests to take the work off. The result was that the Chinese eventually shut down the site altogether, only to reopen something quite similar at another address. Since then we have been made aware of dozens of Chinese sites with cheap copies, giclees and other prints of many living North American and European artists. As far as the likes of Van Gogh and others, “original oils” are widely available. It’s still very disconcerting when I see a hand-made Robert Genn for sale for $30. Funnily, though, they don’t seem to be selling at that price. People seem to like to pay more from legitimate dealers for what they know is the real thing.
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Observations in Beijing
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
In Beijing we went to the Arts District: literally dozens of galleries confined around an old munitions factory. I was hunting for censure in the artwork and generally as long as the artists criticized social ills and not the government, there appeared to be free expression. The artists were definitely competent.
Those fixated smiles are enough evidence of “labored and coerced.” Do you think those artists would ever be commissioned again if they weren’t? They would fade to oblivion. I was very surprised to see an outdoor sculpture, fifteen feet tall, of a stylized crucified Christ, with the caption, “At Work.” Indeed – we went to a church service in Beijing and our passports were checked at the door. No Chinese nationals are allowed without government registration. Our hosts told us if the church ever admitted one they would lose their license to hold services and it takes five years to get another.
I took a class in Chinese Ink Painting at the Cultural Center and thoroughly embarrassed myself. The experience gave me a new appreciation of those who work in that discipline.
by Joanne Taeuffer, Berkeley and Healdsburg, CA, USA
Hung Liu, a California artist who grew up in China, was sent to the fields during the CulturalRevolution, finally got to art school to learn “revolutionary mural” art, moved to California some 30 years ago and taught at Mills College. Her work is grounded in Chinese culture (one body of work is based on a collection of early 20th century photos of prostitutes and peasants) and sometimes has political overtones. She is just too fabulous for words.
(RG note) Thanks, Joanne. A retrospective of Hung Liu’s work is currently on show at the Oakland Museum.
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
As chance would have it I was sitting on my patio overlooking the serene Little Manitou Lake at 5:30 this morning and reading your latest letter from China. Beside my cup of French roast coffee was my copy of Lao Tzu’s The Way of Life. I found the synchronicity very interesting but not surprising, as these types of events happen to me more and more often. I include a short reading of the wayfarer by Lao Tzu.
If the sign of life is in your face
He who responds to it
Will feel secure and fit
As when, in a friendly place,
ure of hearty care,
A traveler gladly waits.
Though it may not taste like food
And he may not see the fare
Or hear a sound of plates,
How endless it is and how good!
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The situation in Turkey
by Alev Guvenir, Istanbul, Turkey
There is a diversity of ethnic origins in Turkey and our cultural richness is a wonderful asset. The civil movement you have been reading and hearing about started with a small group of people, mostly students, for preserving a park from construction. An unequal force was used and the cruelty made us realize there is nothing to lose. The protest grew into defending our human rights. This is a result of the accumulation of the last 10 years.
The situation got very sensitive and people made an effort to show they are standing for the rights of the whole. We are doing this in an apolitical way. It doesn’t matter who we voted for. It can be observed with the demographics of the people at the park. Even the different football fans are singing together. There are grandmas and babies, pets and street dogs. Unfortunately, there is some corruption by different groups.
The political leaders tend to create more tension, rather than addressing the real matter, and there is a temptation to be provocative. It is time to take responsibility at every level for leaving a better world to future generations. My sketch shows my respect for the planet, holding on to my human rights, my belief in democracy.
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giclee on canvas, 26 x 18 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Annie Vanderven of CT, USA, who wrote, “I have a Chinese sister-in-law from Hong Kong. Never does she look angry, always this smiling face which at times drives me right around the bend. In her culture it is not polite to show displeasure.”
And also Frank Schutten of Dieren, Netherlands, who wrote, “Thanks for the wisdom, education and humor.”
And also Tom Andrich of Winnipeg, MB, Canada, who wrote, “Those are fantastic paintings. Is there a way I can get copies to show my students?”
(RG note) Thanks, Tom. Some art instructors have found it useful to ask their students to sign up for the letters so the students can get the material first hand. We know this because we often get letters from students who write, “Please cancel my subscription as I’m not taking that course anymore.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Miles of smiles…