Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chinese Revolutionary Painters

The Paint is Red

Years ago a friend gave me a monograph about one of the State painters of Mao Tse Tung's China. Over time the poorly-produced booklet fell apart. All I have left are the color pages from the center. It's just as well, because (regrettably) I don't read Chinese. It goes without saying that I have no idea of this guy's identity or biography.

His work is typical of the "social realist" painting which flourished under China's Communist government. Intended as propaganda vehicles, these works celebrated good-looking men and women involved in labor and national service. The paintings appeared in books or as inspirational posters in factories and schools.

There seem to have been three broad styles of Chinese revolutionary art: a flat-colored approach which seems to owe much to classical Chinese art and block printing; dynamic black-and-white pictures which resemble mid-20th century Western magazine illustrations; and full-dress oil paintings stylistically rooted in conservative European art of the late 19th century.

It's interesting to see a work-in-progress demo of one of the artist's oils. The approach is solidly academic: a fairly complete charcoal drawing, a wash-in using sepia tones, then opaque color worked over the underpainting.(The finished painting is the image at the top of this post)

Also interesting is the way that the subject's face changes from drawing to finish. In the drawing he's a typical good-looking Chinese man. During his transformation into a hero the model's face loses most of its ethnic traits. I've been puzzled by this before. Many Chinese revolutionary painters seemed to employ an idealized "revolutionary hero" face which didn't look very Chinese.

In the following landscapes the artist treats a factory scene, a traditional landscape, and a river view with a pleasant Impressionistic style.

Here are a lively head study and a sketch of a plaster cast (nice reflected light):These two heads may be details from larger works:Finally come three propaganda works. The picture of the miners caught my eye. In the handful of books I've seen reproducing Chinese revolutionary art appear dozens of paintings glorifying noble (and unusually clean) coal miners. It's kind of creepy in light of the many Chinese mine disasters over the years.Thus does another anonymous illustrator enter the blogosphere. If someone out there knows his name, or can translate the captions, I'd love to hear from you!