World Chambers

A Forum for the Arts of Contemporary Chinese Women

Female artists featured in Prestel’s 2009 text, Young Chinese Artists: The Next Generation — Part VI: Ma Yanhong

leave a comment »

Noe, Piëch, and Steiner draw a comparison between the paintings by Ma Yanhong (b. 1977) and those of her teachers at the Central Academy, artists Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong (p. 179). Ma acknowledges this influence, but is quick to also point out the qualities that distinguish her work from other artists’:

Certainly my teachers shaped me, but I’m developing ever further away from this painting technique. I am concerned with the beauty of the people I paint, their erotic charisma. And it’s not just any random model, but I have a personal connection to the women. We set up the scenes together (Ibid).

Ma’s work builds upon the past at the same time as it removes the power held by now out-dated conventions. She embraces the daintier and prettier aspects of femininity, but her work here is not critiqued for being a return to antiquated ideals (as the femininity in Nuxing Yishu (“woman’s art”) categorized work has been). Instead, it is portrayed as being a natural part of her creativity and personality; and part of her generation’s freedom. On this point, the authors recall a common thread that ties the return to femininity among women in post-Mao China to the unisex egalitarianism of the Cultural Revolution:

Today’s women of urban China seize upon the same right to femininity that their parents’ generation, embroiled in the androgenic policies of the Cultural Revolution, considered morally reprehensible (Ibid).

The androgenic nature of the Cultural Revolution gender roles is not a point that needs debating. The use of the feminine to form a cohesive female voice among artists is also not a new theme within China’s modern art critics. What is interesting here is that the authors portray this return to the feminine as a positive development, whereas critics of the Nuxing Yishi era used the return to the feminine as an illustration of past repression, never pointing to the potential empowerment involved. Surely, both viewpoints are valid, but I wonder why the narrative has changed in so relatively short a time period.

Ma is compared to her female teacher (Yu Hong) who is 14 years her senior, yet Yu’s work was received in a different light that included the negatively connoted domestic/feminine aspects related to the Nuxing Yishu category. One is tempted to make the argument that both generations of women were reacting to the past in a manner that felt empowering, and the different interpretations of this reaction were colored by the dialogue manufactured through and around the development of Nuxing Yishu as a definite category.

Ma’s work is also know for its frank portrayal of the female body in scantily clad scenes that are sometimes incredibly intimate, and at other times force the viewer into an uncomfortable confrontation. The nude in China (particularly the female nude) has its own narrative that Ma both seems to react to and diffuse.

Nudity in China’s art emerged as a “naughty kind of cultural dissent in 1979” and became increasingly politicized amidst the tense cultural conflict between intellectuals and the government that led to the violent protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 (Kraus, 2004, 98). Mao declared the necessity of nude studies for scientific and artistic development, but during much of the 1980s, nude art shows—featuring nudes different in both form and intention—drew sensation and censure, as well as also significant amounts of money for the artists and organizers (female nude models were not included among the lucky recipients of this market, receiving only social denigration and very little other compensation). This growth was not limited to painting as “nude paintings were merely the most refined manifestation of a decade’s movement toward greater sexual explicitness” (Ibid, 91).

Anti-pornography campaigns during the mid 1980s threatened to derail nude painting, but these were primarily veiled attempts at overarching political repression, and the issue paled in comparison to the matters at hand by the end of the decade. Ultimately, nudes in art have prevailed through the ability of the genre to generate market value, especially after Deng Xiaoping’s “southern inspection” in 1992 during which he visited major southern economic sectors to legitimize profit seeking in the market (Ibid, 96). The bumpy progress of the 80s and 90s helped to vindicate one of China’s most prominent female artists, Pan Yuliang (b.1895-d.1977) who lived in Paris for much of her life as a result of the clash between the socially conservative Chinese art world of the 1930s and 1940s, and her unabashedly bold paintings (Kraus, 2004, 96; China Daily, 2006). Her works have been shown widely across the world including exhibitions in the U.S., Japan, and several European nations.

The great acclaim she garnered abroad during her lifetime was legitimated in China both during her life and after her death when her paintings were repatriated in 1985 (they are now held by the China National Art Gallery and Anhui Provincial Museum). Though she lived most of her career Paris, she had five solo shows in China from 1929 to 1936; and at a solo exhibition in Shanghai in 1926, was declared to be China’s first female western style painting artist. After this string of shows, she settled in Paris in 1937 amidst uncomfortable pressures in China including an incident in 1935 in which an audience member of her solo show tore up one of the pieces, and left behind the message, “This is a prostitute’s carol to a whoremonger” as justification (China Daily, 2007). The main contention with her work was its frequent portrayal of female nudity, and she is especially well-known for her depiction of women bathing in nature. “By 2002 a Beijing art exhibition featured nudes that Pan created in Paris suggesting how normal nude painting had become” (Kraus, 2004, 96).

Today, it is even trendy for young women to commission nude portraits of themselves in commemoration of their youth (People’s Daily, 2000). This development and the use of nude self-portraiture is not looked upon approvingly by older generations of Chinese, accustomed to the social mores of the not too distant past that resulted in nude models during the 1980s finding divorce and family estrangement to be the primary reward for their contributions to art. While it will not result in a life of exile for contemporary artists, it certainly pushes social and generational boundaries to not only include graphic representations of the female nude, but to include graphic representations of one’s own female body naked. Scholars argue that neither the government, nor the artistic community has ever resolved the unfair gender relationships innate to the genre of nude painting: “men remained the viewers, and women remained the viewed” (Kraus, 2004, 98). But women are making strides in this direction by reclaiming female nudity as means of personal and social expression.

Cui Xiuwen, whose daring documentary Ladies Room led her to be called a feminist artist by critics is a good example of this development. In 2000, Cui hid a camcorder inside the ladies’ room of a posh Beijing hotel. The image focused on a limited area of mirror in front of which young prostitutes are seen stopping. They adjust their bras, fix their make-up, emotionlessly readying themselves for their evening of work. “Although some art critics have praised “Ladies Room” as a social critique of commercial sex in today’s China, Cui Xiuwen’s interest lies in representing a social space which is both public and secret, and which belongs to women alone” (Grosenick & Schübbe, 2007, 75). Her work is strongly autobiographical, evoking “the artist’s memory of her mixed beliefs, hopes, dreams, and fears” in a public manner that allows for interaction with the viewer (Ibid, 77). Cui incorporates autobiographical depiction using models that resemble herself in youth, and also powerful cultural images that define the life of modern China.

Ma Yanhong’s work shows a similar interaction between history and present, female and artist, and woman and individual. Through a very personal process, she produces intimate portraits that capture a country in this particular time.


Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

March 23, 2010 at 12:58 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: