A Deeper Shade of Red | Chinese Art from the Interwar Period

The sight of a giant scarlet “70”, screaming for attention outside the reserved Chinese Deco facade of the museum, signaled to me what could be expected inside. It seemed not even the world of art was safe from this monumental celebration.

The 2019 anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, as the official title goes, was an important occasion indeed. For after 70 years, it was time for the country to show the world its accomplishments. Naturally, the exhibition taking place at Beijing’s National Museum of Art was one such way to show off.

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Walking inside the tall columned entryway, I was greeted by flowing red signage and, through the throngs of visitors, a massive portrait of Xi Jinping, smiling contentedly as he strode the countryside surrounded by an entourage of villagers. This was only the beginning of this affair in art for the sake of politics, one in which all subtlety would be thrown out the window.

Having been exposed to the propaganda posters of the Cultural Revolution and earlier, I had never seen many paintings on a massive scale, designed for propaganda purposes. Much like the Neoclassical works of French artists like Jacques-Louis David or the paintings of American artist Norman Rockwell, most of the pieces present throughout the museum were designed for one purpose: to tell China’s story through a patriotic lens; all handpicked by those in charge.

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In one gallery stood paintings of Chinese soldiers on peacekeeping missions in Africa, distributing food or providing supplies to those in need. In another, yet more soldiers trudging towards the viewer through an unnamed jungle; jets flying over man-made islands in the South China Sea, helicopters perched at the ready on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Winding my way to the upper levels of the gallery, I began to tune out to the unrelenting displays. I could understand the importance, at least from a governmental perspective, of this event. A little patriotism is no bad thing, but a museum chalk full of it, and chalk full of people to boot, brought me back to another place entirely.

Art for Art’s Sake

Rewind to a year prior, in the spring of 2018. I got a first glimpse of the Long Museum of Art as I was preparing to cross under one of Shanghai’s many highway underpasses. Deep in the recesses of Pudong New District, the institution stood before me like a giant gleaming white monolith. The only red present here was its small minimalist sign.

Unlike its sister institution on the West Bund, across the Huangpu River, this branch was empty save for a few families that had come to see its main show, a celebration of the 90th Anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. Back then, I was a little smarter about viewing politically-charged art, so I was avoiding that to see something, which for me, was new.

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Hidden to the north side of a light-filled, cavernous entry hall stood the exhibition I was looking for. The hall gave way to a rectangular room gallery, dim lights highlighting the dark maroon of the walls. A deeper shade of red for a different kind of art.

The art in question was works by Chinese artists made for the most part during the interwar period – roughly 1920 to 1939. During this period, a group of artists from China made their way to France, where they studied Western art, shaking off the shackles of tradition to incorporate something new into their work.

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A French Connection

The original pioneer of this group was Lin Fengmian. Drawing on the traditions of artists like Matisse and Fauvism, his work was what drew me to the show in the first place. Namely, his portraits of women sitting, often engaged in various tasks. Using thin lines to define his subject, the focus is drawn to the muted colors of clothing and skin tones, edging themselves naturally into minimal backgrounds. Some of Lin’s landscapes were also present. These tended to be more detailed than the portraits, but still fell back to a more minimal, almost abstract, style that seemed to draw from Chinese landscape traditions like the Wu School, while adding more gentle colors characteristic of Western watercolors.

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After he returned to China, Lin would go on to establish the Hangzhou Academy of Art, where he taught a more progressive form of painting that would inspire his students, namely Chu Teh-chun and Zou Wou-ki. The latter’s art was present in this show, works that used dark hues of brown and black of various shades forming abstractions that hinted at the silhouette of simple landscapes.

Despite the efforts of these artists to reinvigorate Chinese art, their work wasn’t appreciated in its time, in China as well as in France. In fact, when a group of Chinese artists participated in the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts decoratifs, their involvement received no press coverage.

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It was even treated with indifference by the Chinese government, which at the time was trying to draw China back towards tradition, an effort to quell the spread of radical and left-leaning ideas that had taken root following the May 4th Movement of 1919. Thus, due to this indifference and lack of coverage, even today, it’s no wonder such pieces don’t come to mind when one thinks of Chinese art.

Connecting with the Past

But with shows like this one, in a small, maroon-walled room within the sleek confines of Shanghai’s Long Museum, the art of these pioneers was clear for all to enjoy. And enjoy it I did.

Prior to my time in this space, I had never spent less than 30 minutes in a gallery of such a modest size. But at this show, in the dark red filled room, I took two hours to take it all in. While works like Lin’s tended to be a direct combination of Chinese and Western elements, others went towards a more wholly Western approach.

Most of the works were impressionistic in nature. Like bright scenes of people strolling along a beachside promenade, and a dark gray, almost muddied depiction of a church in a small town on a rain soaked day.

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Still more though. For instance still life works: flowers in Chinese-style porcelain vases, bright pink juxtaposed by deep jade green, faces of beasts on the side of the vase mimicking the plump flowers. And next to that, a nude. Perhaps one of the only nudes I had seen in Chinese art – besides Republican-era posters of scantily clad women selling things from soap to shampoo. But this was different, harkening to great nudes like Le Grande Odalisque, but forgoing all the preposterous Orientalism, and a background altogether, for a more minimalist – and more Chinese – style.

In the depths of a monolith in Pudong, a room of maroon containing pioneering works of Chinese art. This is what I found that day in 2018. Art that speaks to the viewer, instead of forcing ideas upon them.

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