World Chambers

A Forum for the Arts of Contemporary Chinese Women

Nothing more than modern parlor painting?

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The late 1970s and 80s were a significant time in the history of modern Chinese art. “After years of intellectual blankness during the Communist regime, the new forms that sprang up at this time were categorized under the common terms of avant-garde art’ or ‘experimental art’.” (Claudia Albertini, 2008, Avatars and Antiheroes, 8). Women were outnumbered in participation in these changes, but some critics go so far as to argue that the artwork of women was not only not developing in line with the artwork of their male contemporaries, but that it was not developing at all: entrenched in antiquated themes and styles. Art historian John Clark characterized female artwork of this period as being “wary of societal topics,” and “nothing more than a modern version of parlor painting” (Clark, 2000, Chinese Art at the Turn of the Millennium. Hong Kong: New Art Media Limited, 71).

Could this be true, or do views such as this represent a misconception of the development / language of female artists? Of socialist painting in China?

Similar statements about female artwork can be found within Chinese discourse as well. Take for example the following statement from artist/critic Liao Wen that appears in Wu Hung’s 2002 text, The First Guangzhou Triennal–Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (1990-2000):

“Unfortunately, within the mainstream women’s art served only as a feminine ornament on the broad sweep of government ideology and had little to do with women’s perspective or existence in contemporary China” (p. 61).

Liao, a woman, has written a good deal on the development of female artists in China. Her views are well-informed, yet echo statements that women’s artwork turned to antiquated, safe, paths just as their male contemporaries branched out into untested waters:

Phobic of utilitarianism, they were similarly wary of societal topics. Now more than ever before without a model or a safe harbor, women either consciously or subconsciously returned to the garden of traditional art. Feminist art from this period is almost entirely comprised of women, children, mothers and their children, flowers and scenery. (see Yan Ping ‘s “Mother and Child” and Jiang Caiping ‘s “Tibetan Opera Actress”).

Yan Ping
“Mother and Child”
Oil on Canvas

Jiang Caiping
“Tibetan Opera Actress”
“Gong Bi” Ink on Paper

Even if the works from this period employ a variety of different techniques, nonetheless painting seemed to be nothing more than a modern version of parlor painting and linked neither to Chinese contemporary culture, much less feminist culture (“Tumultuous History of China’s Feminist Values and Art“).

The subjects of women’s artwork in China during the late 1970s through the 1980s may have been similar to those parlor painting (images of home, flowers, portraits of women, etc.), but the style and story seems highly subjective, and the storyteller wields great influence. An exhibit promoted as an Olympic venue attraction by the “Official Website of the Chinese Government” portrayed female artists of the 20th century as wielding unique insights and subtle stylistic linguistics that show them being proactive commentators on the social and political developments of the period.

The exhibit announcement tells us that during the recent Olympics, visitors to the Beijing Fine Art Academy were be greeted by an exhibit of “12 eminent women painters of 20th century China.”

The 50 selected works on show adopted typical subjects in traditional Chinese ink and brush paintings, such as landscapes, flowers-and-birds, and portraits. They were composed by such eminent female painters as He Xiangning, Pu Yunyu, Xiao Shufang and Zhou Sicong between the 1950s and the 1980s.

The show’s organizer says that the female artists have an edge over their male counterparts in terms of artistic expression.

Gao Yuan from Beijing Fine Art Academy said, “Female artists tend to be more keen to discover the hidden beauty in life. They are also more perceptive to changes happening in their surrounding environments. From these paintings, you can see that they have a more serene state of mind.”

The announcement makes special note of the inclusion of Zhou Sicong (1939-1996), whose work is described as significant to nationalistic and feminist causes: “Many of her 1950s’ works reflect how women were actively involved in the construction of socialism.”

Zhou’s work is described by an Italian gallery as significant in contemporary social and feminist discourse:

ZHOU SICONG (1939 – 1996)

Zhou Sicong was born in 1939. As a prominent and influential Chinese artist during the mid to late 20th Century, Zhou was perhaps one of the first to express deep concern for, and doubt over, the fate of Chinese women from a feminist perspective. She once said, “”I always feel that women are too tired, without any rest.” In her painting, ‘Yi women’, Zhou depicts her concerns by portraying two women of Yi ethnicity carring almost overbearing heavy bundles of firewood – a recurring theme in her work. Other more abstract pieces demonstrate Zhou Sicongs mastery of ink and her innovative ink techniques. Zhou died in 1996 at the age of 57.

Several of China’s female artists of the 2oth century showed their work in Europe, and opinions about the development of a modern female visual language are somewhat disparate, but not in strictly geographical terms. Perhaps ideology from multiple channels has impacted this discourse in a different way dependent upon domestic discourse. A survey of artwork in the mid-twentieth century will likely reveal multiple discourses, and women who’s work does not fit the restrictive descriptions above.


Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

January 26, 2010 at 1:04 AM

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