Act of Rebellion: Abstract Art in 1980s Shanghai 

Qiu Deshu, In a restless world, 1979, ink on xuan paper, 130 x 263 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Zhou Changjiang, Chaos, 1983, oil on canvas, 80cm × 100cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Jiasheng Ding; Shanghai Theatre Academy (est.1945), Characters from the revolutionary operas, 1974. Photo courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Qiu Deshu, In a restless world, 1979, ink on xuan paper, 130 x 263 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Zhang Jianjun in front of his work Time and Space (1982). Photo courtesy of the artist.
Ding Yi, Taboo, 1986, oil on canvas. 84 x 84cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Wang Nanming, Balls of Characters Installation《字球组合》, 1989, ink, rice paper, vary in size. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Zhang Lansheng, Free-way No. ∞ 1《自由之路 第 ∞ 1号》, 1987, ink, acrylic, gouache, rice paper, 195 x 96 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.
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ART AND SUSTAINABILITY

Abstraction has been a distinctive feature of contemporary art in Shanghai since the 1980s. Drawing upon first hand experience, Zhang Lansheng explores the evolution of abstract art through an understanding of the socio-political, post-Cultural Revolution context of Shanghai.

TEXT: Zhang Lansheng
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

Zhou Changjiang, Chaos, 1983, oil on canvas, 80cm × 100cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

When theorizing about contemporary Chinese art, critics have generally analysed Shanghai’s vibrant abstract art scene from the perspective of local cultural history and the modern urban and social environment. This analysis provided important context to abstract art in Shanghai. However, I consider that what is missing—namely a perspective on the city’s modern political history and contemporary socio-political conditions—is critical for a better understanding of this early period of abstract art in Shanghai. In light of this omission, this article will highlight the crucial role abstract art played as an act of rebellion by artists in Shanghai in the 1980s, and discuss the evolution of this appropriation of Western abstraction during that decade. I will explore this evolution through an understanding of the socio-political, post-Cultural Revolution context of Shanghai in that time, and from my experience as a practising artist.

In China, literature and discussion about Shanghai’s social and cultural issues have, in general, reminded audiences of Shanghai’s semi-colonial past, including all the positive and negative connotations seemingly attached to it. However, some important historical facts concerning the Chinese communist movement are often either used as propaganda tools by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or omitted. The key facts are as follows: Shanghai was the CCP’s birthplace (1921), the early cradle of the CCP-led Worker Moment (1921), and the birthplace of the League of Leftist Writers (1930). Such a historical legacy kept the CCP highly sensitive to the socio-political environment in Shanghai following the establishment of the New China in 1949. Therefore since 1949, Shanghai has been subjected to the close control and vigilance of the CCP, leaving a significant footprint of the Party throughout Shanghai’s modern political history, and creating a special relationship between the CCP and the city.

China has a long history of ink paintings. Not until the 17th century, the European art and praxis were introduced into China by the Jesuits that created two streams of art and practices recognised as traditional Chinese painting (国画) and Western painting (西洋画). Since the beginning of the 20th century, Shanghai played an important role in embracing learnings from European modern art including realist and modernist art styles, receptive to new ideas, and advancing commercial and industrial developments such as printing and publishing. Art historians have traced the link between the beginnings of abstract art and the earlier Modernist movement in China during the first half of the 20th century, which Shanghai was a centre for in both developments. These art movements were interrupted by the war against Japanese occupation and the civil war between the Kuomintang of China (KMT) and the CCP during the 1930s and 1940s. After the CCP came to power in 1949, Modernist ideas were purged on the orders of the Party, and Modernist art was banned. The newly adopted Socialist Realism from the Soviet Union was the model the Party directed artists to follow. Under the centralised government system, Shanghai lost its position as China’s centre for artistic activities and art education to the capital, Beijing, which was fast becoming the central political power base.

It is widely acknowledged in China that the intellectual and cultural society in Shanghai suffered severe personal, social, and political persecution during the Cultural Revolution in what is described in Chinese as “The Heavy Disaster Area” (重灾区). One critical factor was the Gang of Four—the extreme leftists that were empowered by Mao Zedong to wage aggressive campaigns against his political opposition. The Gang of Four was based in Shanghai where it initiated notorious political campaigns to eliminate its opponents. Shanghai was, in effect, the experimental laboratory and launchpad for their campaigns. Most artists and writers who had a connection to the “pre-liberation” (before 1949, 解放前) artistic and literary community in Shanghai were subjected to prosecution to various degrees by the Gang of Four and their supporters within the Party. The Gang of Four was instrumental in determining and implementing the Party’s arts and cultural policies from the outset of the Cultural Revolution. Based on the approach used in Socialist Realism, the Party promoted the Cultural Revolution propaganda style of “red, bright, and luminescent” (红、光、亮) incorporating a mood that was “sublime, grand, and perfect” (高、大、全) in all cultural productions. Visual art was an effective tool to promote this style of propaganda.

 

Jiasheng Ding; Shanghai Theatre Academy (est.1945), Characters from the revolutionary operas, 1974. Photo courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

 

Over the last 20 years, many exhibitions, articles, and artists’ memoirs in the public domain have proven that some artists continued practising the Modernist style through the 1950s and 60s, as well as working underground throughout the severe suppression under the Cultural Revolution. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the first appearance of artistic expression opposing the official style of art in China was in the Impressionist style of paintings produced by Chinese artists who had been purged but had continued their artistic practice underground. This artistic expression was represented in several exhibitions held in the late 1970s, in particular, the “Twelve Persons Exhibition” (1979), the “Caocao Group 1980 Exhibition” (1980) in Shanghai; and the first “Stars Exhibition” (late 1979) in Beijing. Several abstract artworks by young artists were also shown in those exhibitions.

Abstract art appealed, above all, to avant-garde artists in Shanghai who opposed authoritarian art and were looking for artistic freedom. It was visually distinct from the official art of the late 1970s and early 1980s, making no direct political references. Pieces often offered multiple layers of interpretation, and could be understood either in Eastern or Western historical and philosophical contexts. Artists appropriated this art form as a suitable vehicle to present their opposition to mainstream art by disassociating their output from political visual images. It was an avant-garde move and with it came a search for individual artistic language. Art produced in this period was an exploration of abstraction, often inspired by experiences and feelings from music, ancient scripts, and pictorial elements, such as lines, dots, and shapes. This was reflected by Shanghai artists such as Li Shan, Zhang Jian-Jun, Yu Youhan, Qiu Deshu, Chen Zhen, Zhou Changjiang, Gu Wenda, Cha Guojun, and Shen Cheng in their works produced from the end of the 1970s through 1984. Under the political conditions in Shanghai at that time, artists practising abstract art could be purged and face public criticism, as well as financial and career sanctions by the authorities.

 

Qiu Deshu, In a restless world, 1979, ink on xuan paper, 130 x 263 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

 

As a consequence, abstraction was taken on only by a small number of artists and their art was referred to as “Qianwei” (前卫) among Shanghai’s art circle in the early 1980s. The term Qianwei is a literal Chinese translation of the term avant-garde. Artists themselves applied the term Qianwei to an action of defiance or opposition towards official art, which was an indirect appropriation of Western avant-gardism. It has also been used in the 1980s to describe various artistic outputs and movements, mainly by artists and art critics. The desire for artistic freedom led those artists in Shanghai to adopt the Qianwei art practice in their search for an individual artistic language. Their awareness of the cultural, socio-political history and contemporary life of both China and the Western world drove them to seek creative inspiration from Chinese traditional culture and Eastern philosophical ideas. In this process, traditional Eastern philosophies were a prime resource together with contemporary Western philosophy. Abstract art provided the ideal means to represent individual artistic languages.

Under the “Reform and Open Door” political and economic policy in China, which was introduced at the end of 1978, new information and knowledge on art and science flowed into China from the outside world. This naturally impacted the vision of the Qianwei artists. From 1982 onwards, the practice of abstract art began to involve mixed media. An oil painting was no longer only produced through the traditional medium of oil and canvas, and a Chinese painting (中国画) was no longer produced exclusively from ink and rice paper. They were mixed with other materials to convey the artist’s expression. For example, in Zhang Jian-Jun’s Time・Space (1982), cobblestones, sand, plaster, and oil colour were used together on the canvas. These non-conventional materials reinforced the sense of the passage of time and their three-dimensional bodies added more visual texture. They were static in contrast to geometric shapes and, furthermore, the vigorous brush strokes demonstrated the desire of the artist to break out of his constrained conditions. Similarly, in Gu Wenda’s Wisdom Comes from Tranquillity (1986), the woven textile fibres were incorporated into panels in a large installation together with ink paintings. Gu was trained in traditional Chinese ink painting and studied under the master painter Lu Yanshao. With such a background, Gu’s experimental work can be rightly interpreted as a bold challenge towards the traditional Chinese ink painting practice that was unprecedented in the medium’s long history.

 

Zhang Jianjun in front of his work Time and Space (1982). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

The aforementioned group of early abstract artists in Shanghai greatly influenced other artists emerging in the mid to late 1980s. Artists including Xu Hong, Ding Yi, Li Liang, Qin Yifeng, Shen Haopeng, Shen Fan, Wang Nanming, and myself, are part of the period that is commonly viewed as the ’85 New Wave Movement. The focus of abstract art shifted away from the heavily philosophical and intellectual elements of the recent past, moving instead towards emphasising the medium itself and the autonomous nature of art, thereby recommencing the use of traditional ink and rice paper. For example, in Wang Nanming’s Balls of Characters Installation, a large number of rice paper balls were stacked up in a site-specific form, and each paper ball partially revealed the ink strokes of Chinese characters. This installation was a result of his artistic enquiries into traditional Chinese calligraphy during the 1980s. Wang promoted a critical cultural commentary on this traditional form of art by combining the key calligraphy elements such as brush strokes, ink, and rice paper, and changing the structure or form, in order to provoke new interpretations.

 

Ding Yi, Taboo, 1986, oil on canvas. 84 x 84cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Wang Nanming, Balls of Characters Installation《字球组合》, 1989, ink, rice paper, vary in size. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

In my abstract works from the mid to late 1980s, for example the “Free-way” series, I was searching for the meaning of freedom in a broad sense without a heavy philosophical or conceptual overlay. The approach started in the composition, an imitation of a freeway through broad brush ink strokes, free-flow and constrained fine lines, geometrical coloured shapes, and a variety of ink dots, expressing the feeling of freedom by the way that the brush stroke moves and the line flows. At the same time, various constraints in the colour shapes created a sense of alarm, raising questions about the meaning of freedom.

 

Zhang Lansheng, Free-way No. ∞ 1《自由之路 第 ∞ 1号》, 1987, ink, acrylic, gouache, rice paper, 195 x 96 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

By the late 1980s, abstract art was so widespread in China that the movement has been described by the prominent art critic Li Xiangting as part of an artistic trend of searching for a “purified language.”

The re-emerged forces of Modernism and abstraction in the 1980s may be viewed by many today as lacking in stylistic originality. However, I would argue that the significance of those artworks and practices lies in their defiance to the Party’s dictum on art. This was the true spirit of the avant-garde act to stand up to the social and political environment of the time, under threat of censorship and political punishment. The style of artistic practice were tools of expression, and any appropriated artistic style served this purpose. This rebellious action by artists came together with searching for individual artistic language after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The art produced during this period by Shanghai artists evidenced both the initial act of resistance and the transformation process. It is critical to recognise the avant-garde nature of abstract art in Shanghai in the 1980s. It is equally important to understand that abstract art has continually shifted its focus and emphasis in response to the rapid development of contemporary Chinese art as well as social-political change during the 1980s.

 

 

References:

Julia Frances Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, The Art of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

Li Chao. “Modern Shanghai with Western Paintings Moving into East,” Shanghai Culture, Extra edition, Autumn, (07 October 2009): 309. [In Chinese]

Li Chao, China’s Early Oil Painting History (Shanghai: Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Publishing House 2004).

Li Xiaofeng, “The Transcription of Speeches in the Exhibition Seminar,” in exh.cat Metaphysics 2001: Shanghai Abstract Art Exhibition (Shanghai: Shanghai Art Museum, 2001). [In Chinese]

Li Xianting, “Major Trends in the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art,” in exh.cat China’s New Art, Post-1989 (Hong Kong: Hanart TZ Gallery, 1993), pp.X-XXII.

Li Xiangyang, “Foreword,” in exh.cat Metaphysics 2001: Shanghai Abstract Art Exhibition (Shanghai: Shanghai Art Museum, 2001). [In Chinese]

Li Xu, “Abstraction, an Old Topic,” in exh.cat Metaphysics 2001: Shanghai Abstract Art Exhibition [In Chinese] (Shanghai: Shanghai Art Museum, 2001).

Shen, Kuiyi and Andrews, Julia Frances, Blooming in the Shadows: Unofficial Chinese Art,

1974-1985 (New York: New York China Institute Gallery, China Institute, 2011).

Wu Liang, “Abstract art in Shanghai,” Art in Shanghai (Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Art Publishing House, 2002). [In Chinese]

Wang Nanming, “Shanghai Early Abstract: From the Formalist History? From Design? Or from the Cultural Studies?,” in exh.cat Turn to Abstract: Retrospective of Shanghai Experimental Art from 1976 to 1985 (Shanghai: Zendai MoMA, Shanghai, 2008). [In Chinese]

 

 


 

Lansheng Zhang is an art historian and artist. He trained as a practising artist in Shanghai during the 1970s and 1980s and studied Art History in Master and PhD programmes at the Australian National University in Canberra. He was guest lecturer at the University of Agriculture and Technology, Tokyo from 2002 to 2003; Associate Professor at the East China Normal University School of Art in Shanghai from 2005 to 2012; the Adjunct Professor with the RMIT University School of Art, Melbourne from 2006 to 2008; and currently the Senior Fellow at the College of Arts, University of Lincoln, UK.

 

 

 
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