Curiously, artists of the post-1989 generation are receiving dramatically more international recognition than their predecessors. On the one hand this reflects the power of an art that grows out of tragedy, on the other the inspired marketing of Hong Kong dealer Johnson Chang and his friends on both sides of China's frontiers.
Chang, 42, went to college in America, where he studied philosophy and religion. Returning to Hong Kong in the early 1970s, he started to write about art for various Asian journals and he opened a gallery selling antique Chinese painting - a very scholarly speciality - in 1977. He was the first local dealer to pick up on contemporary Chinese art, and he began mounting shows for local artists in 1980. He has prospered greatly and his Hanart T Z Gallery now has branches in both Hong Kong and Taipei.
The first London exhibition of 'New Art from China: Post-1989' opens at the Marlborough Gallery in Albemarle Street on Tuesday, and Chang is the curator. It is the product of his friendship with Gilbert Lloyd, son of the founder of the gallery. Lloyd saw the exhibition of 'Political Pop' paintings from mainland China that Chang had mounted at the Art Asia fair in Hong Kong in November 1992; he was fascinated by it and the idea of a London exhibition was born.
The Marlborough is showing a selection of work by the artists who were included in a massive exhibition called 'China's New Art, Post-1989', staged at the Hong Kong Art Festival last February. The curators were Chang and Li Xianting - a Beijing art critic and former editor of the highly influential journal Fine Arts in China, which was closed by government decree in June 1989. They took two years - travelling the length and breadth of China, talking to artists and looking at art - to put the show together.
Their exhibition has now begun an international odyssey. It has already been shown in Sydney and Melbourne, and is now on its way to Perth. A tour of American museums is scheduled to begin next autumn. Meanwhile, many of the artists from their show were included in this year's Venice Biennale, and at the House of World Culture in Berlin and the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.
The best paintings in the Marlborough exhibition are priced in the pounds 20,000 to pounds 40,000 range, with lesser works running down to about pounds 5,000. The small group of prints are more accessibly priced at between pounds 600 and pounds 1,200; they could prove good buys given the historical significance of the show and the small edition sizes.
Chang has divided the artists into five groupings, reflecting the style and emotional content of their work. He calls them: Political Pop, Rogue Cynicism, Wounded Romantic Spirit, Emotional Bondage and Retreat into Formalism. The first two provide the keynote of China's new art.
Political Pop takes the propaganda images of Maoist Social Realism and combines them with symbols of Western consumerism - so popular in China now. Warhol is the prime stylistic influence. A painting by Wang Guangyi, for example, priced by the Marlborough at around pounds 20,000, combines Soviet-style noble workers and bits of an advertisement for Cadbury's fruit and nut chocolate. Li Shan, in contrast, has taken a photograph of Mao in his thirties, transsexed him by the addition of lipstick and eyebrow pencil, and popped a lotus blossom in his mouth; the painting is priced at around pounds 18,000.
Rogue Cynicism is the product of young artists who have adopted a dissipated, bohemian life-style. They paint intimate pictures of themselves, their families and friends that highlight boredom, chance and absurdity. Among Western artists their work owes a special debt to Lucian Freud and Balthus. The masterpiece in the Marlborough show, priced at around pounds 40,000, is a grisaille painting by Fang Lijiun of a naked man with a shaved head crouching in the sky.
Zhang Xiaogang, whose work currently focuses on mourning and martyrdom, is the prime representative of the Wounded Romantic Spirit, while Zeng Fanzhi - representing Emotional Bondage - is showing a disturbing expressionist rendering of human bodies and bloody carcasses entitled Meat: Reclining Figures.
Emotional Bondage, according to Chang, is a polite term for sado-masochism, an internalised obsession that is nurtured by an external life bound by political restrictions.
Finally two pictures by Shang Yang of hazily painted, near-abstract objects represent the Retreat into Formalism. Abstraction is used by Chinese artists such as Shang to give the spiritual dimensions of Eastern philosophy a visual interpretation.
Much of this painting looks curiously old-fashioned to the Western eye; it is mostly figurative, in oil on canvas. The work only begins to make sense when the context which has brought it into existence is understood. Western oil painting was first adopted in China around 1919 as a means of representing reality - in reaction to the traditional transcendent, or spiritual, approach of Chinese brush painting on paper. The first art academies were modelled on 19th-century principles, with the accent on careful drawing from plaster casts and live models. This remains the standard approach in China.
While a few artists toyed with Modernism in the 1920s and 1930s, realism was perceived by avant-garde artists as the most appropriate revolutionary art form. Under Communism it was imposed as a political directive; Mao decreed that art should serve political ends by entertaining and edifying the masses. Maoist Revolutionary Realism remained the official art of China for 30 years, a style that combines 19th- century academicism, Soviet Social Realism and the colourful tradition of Chinese folk art.
China has many art academies, Government-sponsored exhibitions and official artists financed by the state. The new wave of art is unofficial. The artists are little known within China and rarely exhibited inside the country but, because of their new popularity abroad, some of them are already much richer than China's official artists.
The unofficial, or dissident, art scene began with a group called the 'Stars' in 1979. They adopted the slogan 'Picasso is our banner, Kollwitz is our model' and painted socially and politically critical works which still largely relied on realist technique. During the following decade dissidents experimented with every Western style invented between 1900 and 1980. This surge of innovation culminated in February 1989 with the 'China/Avant-garde' exhibition in Beijing.
'It was enormously exciting,' Chang says. 'It was the first time that an exhibition of this nature had had official sanction. Of course, the quality of the exhibits was very mixed - every different trend was represented. But it had a huge effect on the art world.'
Chang started negotiating to bring the exhibition to Hong Kong to present it to the outside world, but the 4 June massacre ended that. When he returned to China early in 1991, a new avant-garde had been born - operating, as it does today, without official sanction. -
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