Communist Chinese art was heavily influenced by Russian painting. The Chinese adopted the European idea of history painting, a painting that seemingly depicts an historical event, but in fact is designed to display the power of the regime.
Alison Carroll investigates the Dong Xiwen painting, Mao declaring the Communist People’s Republic from Tiananmen Square, a history painting of in which key characters were painted in and out depending upon whether they were in favour.
Alison Carroll talks to Shen Jiawei a key artist working for the Cultural Revolution. He tells the story of a painting he created and how it too was painted over to better suit the communist agenda.
Interviewees in this episode
Shen Jiawei – China/Australia
Born in Shanghai in 1948, Shen Jiawei came to Australia in 1989, just before the Tianenmen Square incident, and he now lives just outside Sydney. He has made an international name for his highly skilled, large, oil-painted ‘history paintings’ of contemporary, historic and devised subjects, usually of Chinese subjects. He came to prominence in China during the Cultural Revolution when Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao Zedong’s wife, noticed and praised his work, notably the painting of two young men on guard duty (heroically guarding the nation) overlooking the northern border river to (then) hostile Russia.
Discussion Topic 1
The victors select the imagery by which we know history and judge their actions. The image becomes a visual justification of their power. Discuss
Discussion Topic 2
Look at events over the past year that might be the subject of a history painting? Make a rough sketch and discuss with others what you have done to make it a history painting rather than a document. How does it re-inforce the power of the key character and their ideology?
Discussion Topic 3
In the digital age we can use programs such as Photoshop to add or subtract people from an image, or change their appearance. It has become a casual thing to do. When we do this, are we re-writing an event or simply creating an idealised or wishful version?
Discussion Topic 4
Consider the enormous potency of imagery – world leaders, political, social or economic employ it to ensure their power and supremacy. What devices do the disempowered use to subvert this potency?
Chinese-Russian-American relations documentary with original footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnhS8YtgURM