Artists in the exhibition

Chen Haiyan 陈海燕
Chen Jialing 陈家泠
Cheng Shifa 程十发
Wenda Gu 谷文达 (Gu Wenda)
Kong Baiji 孔柏基
Liu Haisu 刘海粟
Pan Xinglei 潘星磊
Qiu Deshu 仇德树
Song Wenzhi 宋文治
Su Xinping 苏新平
Sun Jingbo 孙景波
Tang Muli 汤沐黎
Tang Yun 唐云
Wu Shanzhuan 吴山专
Wu Yi 吴毅
Xing Danwen 邢丹文
Xu Bing 徐冰
Xu Tan 徐坦
Xu Wenhua 徐文华
Ya Ming 亚明
Yang Gang 杨刚
Yang Yanping 杨燕屏
Ye Qianyu 叶浅予
Yuan Yunsheng 袁运生
Zhang Hongtu 张宏图
Zhu Xiuli 朱脩立

Artists of China’s Reform Era

Julia F. Andrews
(excerpted from the catalogue Post-Mao Dreaming: Chinese Contemporary Art)

The spectacular improvements to Beijing’s infrastructure leading up to the 2008 Olympics—and the generally positive press and popular response to the international event—mark the culmination of almost three decades of post-Mao social, cultural, diplomatic, and economic development. The Maoist period, spanning the previous thirty years (between 1949 and 1979) began with great hope for China’s people, exhausted as they were by World War II and the Chinese Civil War. Held back by Mao Zedong’s Stalinist excesses in the late 1950s, however, and then pushed during Mao’s last decade of life into the xenophobic totalitarian turmoil called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the new government largely failed to live up to the optimism with which it had been greeted.

The 1950s brought about radical changes in the practice of art in China, the result of an evolving Communist Party strategy to regulate artistic standards and styles. Traditional ink painting and modernist oil painting gave way to a unique, Soviet-inspired form of Chinese socialist realism. Modernist establishments that had flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, such as commercial art and magazine publishing houses, Western-style art schools, private art societies, and painting shops, were closed or radically restructured—and then supplanted by new party-controlled institutions that would, in Mao’s words, “serve the people.” During the Cultural Revolution, however, even the “progressive” new institutions were largely shut down, as the teachers, artists, and writers who staffed them were either imprisoned or sent to labor in the countryside.

The devastation the Cultural Revolution brought to China’s people and its institutions may have been comparable to that wreaked upon them by the foreign invasion and warlord battles of the first part of the century, but it was all the more agonizing because it had been initiated and implemented entirely internally. The effects of this ten-year political movement were indelibly inscribed on the bodies and spirits of those who lived through it, and echo throughout the art world even today.

Perhaps hoping, despite all, to leave as his legacy a nation respected rather than shunned by the world, Mao Zedong and his elderly advisors, most notably Zhou Enlai, initiated back-channel contacts with the United States in the “Ping-Pong diplomacy” of 1971. In the art world, parallel to this very tentative diplomatic reemergence, central authorities had begun reconstructing the national exhibition system from the ground up—beginning with local and provincial exhibitions, and culminating in the tightly controlled 1972 exhibition to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art.

Joan Lebold Cohen and Jerome A. Cohen, visiting the People’s Republic of China for the first time in 1972, had the opportunity to see the earliest of a series of exhibitions that aimed to codify the aesthetic standards of a new and quite extreme version of Chinese socialist realism. On repeated trips during the second half of the Cultural Revolution, the Cohens experienced China at its most restrictive, and witnessed the extremes to which Maoism and Cultural Revolution policies limited the ways in which artists, like all citizens, could conduct their métiers.

The terribly constrained lives of most ordinary Chinese, who still lived under the strict ideological and social control of the Cultural Revolution authorities, were not relieved by such tentative openings on the international front. Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong died in 1976 before completing diplomatic normalization, and by the time the leading figures in the Cultural Revolution administration (the so-called Gang of Four) were arrested on October 6, 1976, the people’s distress at their difficult lives and their nation’s fate was almost as acute as it had been in the late 1940s.

In the art world, as in intellectual circles, there was a great hunger for change. By late 1978, reformist leader Deng Xiaoping had assumed control of China. The Cohens returned to Beijing in January of 1979 just as China began opening to the outside world. Jerome, then director of East Asian Legal Studies and associate dean at Harvard Law School, taught international law, in Chinese, to government officials. Joan, with her slide projector in tow, gave richly illustrated lectures on modern and contemporary American art to art students and faculty at institutions all over China. The body of work collected by the Cohens in those years, as a whole, reflects the first steps taken by the Chinese art world as it began to overturn the totalitarian standards that had so harshly squeezed creative expression in the Maoist era. Individuals responded in different ways to the slow liberalization underway in those years—the elderly frequently possessed a pre-Communist artistic vocabulary on which to fall back, while for the young, total iconoclasm was often the only option.