Miles of smiles

Dear Artist, 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. 060713_robert-genn11 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. Best regards, Robert 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 060713_robert-genn1 060713_robert-genn2 060713_robert-genn3       060713_robert-genn6 060713_robert-genn7 060713_robert-genn8       060713_robert-genn9 060713_robert-genn10         060713_robert-genn4 060713_robert-genn11 060713_robert-genn12       060713_robert-genn5 060713_robert-genn13 060713_robert-genn14       060713_robert-genn15 060713_robert-genn16 060713_robert-genn17       060713_robert-genn18 060713_robert-genn19 060713_robert-genn20 060713_robert-genn21       Awesome art by Jim Jordan, Orinda, CA, USA  

“Baseball at DVC”
acrylic painting
by Jim Jordan

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.        

by Wanxin Zhang


mixed media resin painting
by Hung Liu

                Eastern painters move west by Mike Jorden, Osoyoos, BC, Canada  

“Country Life – Owens Valley”
oil painting
by Mike Jorden

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.  

oil painting by Mian Situ


oil painting by Z.S. Liang


oil on canvas
by Calvin Liang


oil painting
by Zhiwei Tu

        (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. There are 2 comments for Eastern painters move west by Mike Jorden
From: Anonymous — Jun 12, 2013

Yet another reason why this is such a valuable site: we are introduced to other great artists.

From: Briggs Sutton — Jun 12, 2013

Amazing how the Chinese artists come to America and adapt to its subject matter.

  Art with an agenda by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA  

pastel painting
by Sharon Knettell

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. There is 1 comment for Art with an agenda by Sharon Knettell
From: Virginia Wieringa — Jun 11, 2013
  Why are they smiling? by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA  

motorized light sculpture
by Ernst Lurker

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  

Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss.’ Photo of a silk version hastily taken in a commercial art gallery.

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.

A copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Starry, Starry Night’ done this time in silk.

            (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. There are 2 comments for Stolen art from China by Yvonne Morrish
From: Nancy — Jun 11, 2013

Robert, how would you have any idea if the $30 Robert Genn’s were selling or not? I doubt the Chinese who are selling them are sharing their balance sheets with you. You are kidding yourself, and believing what you want to believe.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jun 11, 2013

I felt physically ill after looking at the copy of the Van Gogh. I went on line to see a photograph of the original painting and the nausea subsided…replaced by admiration of Van Gogh. He was in control of his canvas.

  Observations in Beijing by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA  

Artwork from the Arts District in China

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.   Hung Liu by Joanne Taeuffer, Berkeley and Healdsburg, CA, USA  

“Last Rays Of Summer”
original painting
by Joanne Taeuffer


mural painting
by Hung Liu

          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.  

oil painting
by Hung Liu


oil painting
by Hung Liu

            Lao Tzu by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada  

“Stone Circle near Eastend”
original painting
by Darrell Baschak

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! There is 1 comment for Lao Tzu by Darrell Baschak
From: Anonymous — Jun 11, 2013


thank you for sharing
  The situation in Turkey by Alev Guvenir, Istanbul, Turkey  

oil sketch
by Alev Guvenir

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. There are 3 comments for The situation in Turkey by Alev Guvenir
From: Anna H. — Jun 10, 2013

Your “sketch” is very beautiful and sensitively done – love it!

From: Karen R. Phinney — Jun 11, 2013

And I believe that many of us watch the situation in Turkey with sympathy and hope that it will be resolved peacefully and successfully, with minimal bloodshed. Prayers are with you all.

From: Nelson Brooks — Jun 11, 2013

Mr Ergogan is the most popular prime minister since Ataturk. He has been a winner three times. He now has too much testosterone and is making bad decisions and saying stupid things. He needs to take a walk.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Miles of smiles

From: ReneW — Jun 07, 2013

Compared to where they have been to where they are now, the Chinese people should be smiling. Everything comes from China, why not art?

From: Nils Hansen — Jun 07, 2013

That painting of the operation you have in your letter above and in the excellent clickback before, where the patient is “out cold” and smiling may be that he is not out cold at all but rather very much awake and receiving acupuncture during what looks like a very invasive operation.

From: Terry McIlrath — Jun 07, 2013


From: Li Chen — Jun 07, 2013

Chinese are proud of what they have done: better housing, bridges, science, economics. Their Art Gallery trips are part of the reminder that they have rejoined the greater world in a short period of time and intend to take full part in it.

From: June — Jun 07, 2013

This looks the same to me as the Norman Rockwell stuff. The same kind of masterful advertising of an illusion of a society.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 07, 2013

…always doing (BEING) both…

but really- always smiling? Sorry… I’m a bit deeper than that.
From: JJamillah Jennings — Jun 07, 2013
From: Basil Pessin — Jun 07, 2013

I read somewhere, so don’t take this as fact, that there are entire villages in China devoted to painting. The children grow up learning to paint. Some villages are devoted to teaching children from early childhood to forge the great masters and are sold as copies to support the economy of the villages.????

From: Jane Derby — Jun 07, 2013

Thanks for including these. Despite what I know about the cultural revolution in China, I found myself reluctantly moved. It’s nice to see portraits of unadulterated idealism, particularly of ordinary, working people. I particularly liked the one of the teacher. I wish I had had it somewhere to look at when I was teaching high school.

From: Judith Sutton-Fagan — Jun 07, 2013

Although the expertise is quite evident and rendering is wonderful in your recently posted Chinese examples of oil paintings, all the compositions look vaguely familiar to me. I just can not help but wonder if they somehow inserted their contexts, as you bring to mind, of pictures that proceeded them; especially from the United States? I know the Chinese are quite crafty with their copies so I am giving this some thought.

From: H Margret — Jun 07, 2013

Sure, the Chinese work is all accurately drawn but it’s very monochromatic when one looks at the whole page. Only a few show true light use, like the one of the single man. None show the amazing light of Rembrandt or William Turner.

I’m not at all afraid of the Chinese competition. They seem to have different creative goals although they are truly able to buy anything in the world they want now.
From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Jun 07, 2013
From: L&M Guillaume — Jun 07, 2013

This made me laugh out loud. I’m sure I saw ‘une vache qui rit’ as well! Appreciate the art none the less.

From: Kellianne Land — Jun 07, 2013

Well Mr. Genn, Really “These people can draw!”! Exactly what did you expect?

From: Norman Fry — Jun 07, 2013

The Chinese artist Yue Minjun has made a fetish out of the Chinese smile, taking it to ridiculous lengths with bunches of laughers who are endowed with altogether too many teeth.

From: Jackie Knott — Jun 08, 2013
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jun 08, 2013

to Jjamillah Jennings…American Curators need a bit of that Chinese political practice of “reeducation”. If an artist does not fit into a certain narrative, he is to be ignored. Typically the narrative is about a naive shepherd whose drawings in the sand are seen and brought into the art “fold”. A lot of success is not based on merit, but on schmoozing. Maybe some of that is in order; without making your agenda too obvious. Have you targeted your galleries…the paintings are nice and of a certain nature…I am sure you will be successful.

From: Maryna den Braanker — Jun 08, 2013

It has been a long time that I didn’t write/comment on your emails. Just want to tell you that I enjoy them – always something to look forward to!

South Africa Greetings Maryna
From: Victor Marx — Jun 08, 2013

There are also paintings of the brutal Japanese invasion and other injustices that the Chinese are not soon going to forget. Do not neglect to know that this gallery is propaganda designed to keep the myths alive for the people.

From: Zhiwei Liang — Jun 08, 2013

It was the freer state of Taiwan that actually showed the way for mainland China’s great new prosperity, renaissance and the wider flourishing of other art forms. Most Chinese are natural entrepreneurs.

From: Elizabeth Briel — Jun 08, 2013

There are many good museums here in Beijing. Most are better than the National Art Museum! Yes, the art produced here is incredible–that’s one reason I moved here last year, in spite of the challenges that daily life brings.

From: Susan Paliser — Jun 10, 2013
From: Carol Kairis — Jun 13, 2013

Respectfully…~ “To thy own self be true”.

   Featured Workshop: Brian Keeler 061113_robert-genn Brian Keeler workshops Held in Italy   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa

Cloud People

giclee on canvas, 26 x 18 inches by Wendy Wells-Bailey, BC, Canada

  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.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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