The Enlightenment Movement of Contemporary Chinese Art - ?the Scar art period
The 10 long years of the Cultural Revolution finally ended in 1976. As politics and society began to change, so did the criteria and standards of aesthetic standards inart: the standard socialist artistic and literary creations could no longer distract the people from craving a reappraisal of the Cultural Revolution and to see true representations of their sufferings and feelings. In 1978, publication of a story titled Scar struck a chord with the population. It told the tale of the Cultural Revolution through the eyes of its protagonist, Wen Wei Po, and laid out his expectations for the future. It was exactly the reflective piece the people of the time were craving and provoked a huge reaction. In the art scene, a group of young artists began to break free from the restraints of communist ideology, refusing to use socialist images or tailored historical figures as their creative blue print. They started to depict - in an objective, realistic style but with a hint of true inner feeling - the fate and real conditions of the ordinary people of the era. This period later became known as the Scar Art period.
The Scar period is actually the return to Realism. Due to the political environment, the phrase 'reflecting the truth in reality' had become synonymous with 'Phony Realism'. The emergence of Scar Art was the result of the intelligentsia's reassessment of contemporary Chinese culture. They turned their focus from worshipping national symbols to focusing on ordinary people and society. This new found emphasis on valuing the individual is similar to the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe. In his essay 'What is Enlightenment?', Immanuel Kant says 'Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed constraints'. It is a process of humans turning from being controlled by others to becoming autonomous rational individuals, following their own social destiny. This new way of thinking broke down the socialist model for art and introduced the language and concepts from western modernism, therefore playing a key role in the development of Contemporary Chinese art and literature.
In 1977, the system of National Higher Education Entrance Examination was reinstated after 11 years of suspension; students could finally enroll in universities via a standard path, free from the restraints familial or political backgrounds. That same year, the Sichuan Fine Art Institute admitted a group of students who would later become the main force behind Scar Art: Luo Zhongli, Zhou Chunya, Zhang Xiaogang, Gao Xiaohua, Cheng Conglin, He Duolin and others. The institute provided a more independent educational style, without the repetitive academic assignments and dogmatic educational prevalent system since 1949. The new approach encouraged students to create, rather than just sketch, introducing students to the world of art with freedom of expression.
In the second year of the curriculum, the institute began to exhibit albums of Impressionist pictures. Since Western Modernism had been banned for years in China, it was the first time the young students saw examples of foreign art in a style other than Social Realism. 'We got to know Monet, Cezanne, Pissarro, and later we got to know Matisse, Van Gogh and Picasso,' wrote former student Zhou Chunya (Zhou Chunya, Events). Viewing these foreign paintings gave Zhou, who is very perceptive of colours, his first lesson on the techniques of colour application. During the summer holiday of 1980, Zhou went to the so-called Oasis on the plateau - the Ruoergai grasslands in Aba, Sichuan, where nomadic Tibetans are the majority of the population. The artist discovered in the luscious colours of the grasslands and the sumptuousness of the Tibetans costumes a beauty he has never seen before: 'The clothing of the Tibetans were exceptionally beautiful,' he said. 'When they walked under a sky that was so blue, the jewellery they wore were glittering. I had never seen such beautiful colours; I was under the huge influence of French Impressionism at that time and was very sensitive towards natural light. The impact of the light and the colours of clothing, grass and sky were all so intense that I really find it difficult to forget.' During his two weeks on the grasslands, Zhou stayed in the classroom of an elementary school. Children on their summer holiday often went to see the artist paint. Zhou used some of the more frequent visitors as models in the few sketches and colour compositions he drafted. These drafts and sketches became the basis for the creation of New Generation Tibetan (Lot 45), and he began painting after he returned to the city.
In this work, Zhou depicts a group of Tibetan school children in a naturalistic and sentimental style. Aged 8 to 10 years old, they stand in the classroom wearing traditional Tibetan costume. There is no complicated storyline, only the innocent smiles of the children. Zhou depicts objectively and in straightforward visual language the purity, kindness and optimism that still survives in the people after 10 years of political and cultural oppression. This representation of humanity echoes across time and space, with the primitive atmosphere akin to the little girls on the Breton coast in Paul Gauguin's painting (Fig. 4).
Although Zhou was highly influenced by Impressionism, but he made the light brushstrokes and colours simple and heavier. In his mind, the colour brown reflects the passionate and honest temperament of the Tibetans: warm but not frivolous, calm but not cold. Zhou uses his own techniques of color application to paint large blocks of colour and gestures of wood cutting to give the work a heavy texture similar to sculpture. Zhou said: 'The colours of Tibet lend themselves to these techniques. Tibetans love using warm colours, like brown. After coming back from Tibet, my daughter was born, so I named her 'Browny', I was so much in love with brown at that time. I highlighted the lines on the picture, because of the hints that the subject gave me, not because of objective or expressive reasons. I hope I can connect to nature innocently and see the world like a new-born infant. I wrote a line by Cezanne into my notebook: "Method is generated from contact with nature and develops with form. It gives you the appropriate expression for your feelings and creates your own aesthetics based on these feelings." This is my motto for learning.'
Each child in the picture is an independent image; although the girls are wearing brown, the red scarves and patterns on the aprons still indicate their desire to look pretty. Their faces are red from the strong sun of the Tibetan grasslands, which makes their faces look delicate and charming. The older, smiling girl on the left appears to be more mature. The girl on the right seems to be shy, expressed by her smile. Her bare feet are particularly notable. This girl made a big impression on Zhou because she 'was well-behaved and beautiful'. Although it was the summer holiday, this girl still wore her red scarf every day - we can also find this detail in Zhou's painting. Zhou also vividly remembered the boy in the middle, saying he had a good impression of the boy, who 'looks like an Indian'. Zhou found the boy kind and cheerful and talked to him a lot while painting. Zhou omitted the children's facial details in his drafts but not for this boy; his face was drawn clearly with a cheerful smile. Another boy, second from the right, has a serious expression with only a faint smile, but he is the tallest and best dressed. He even has a Tibetan knife hidden under his robe as if he is a little hero. The boy farthest to the right seems to be the youngest but most relaxed. He wears a hat and a big robe that covers almost his whole body, with only his tanned smiling face and white teeth showing. Zhou incorporates no complicated scenes or movements in the picture, but vividly expresses the happiness of the children through their expressions and the colours. This tribute to ordinary people is reminiscent of the work of the great Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who also found the beauty of life in the most simple daily activities, depicting the cheerful nature of his subjects and their optimistic state of mind (Fig. 3).
New Generation Tibetan won second prize in the second National Youth Art Exhibition. Along with Father by Luo Zhongli, which won the first prize, and the earlier Tibet series by Chen Danqing, it is a very good example of Scar Art. The critic Li Xianting said: '(In these works the artist) shows a pattern of concern for humanity (the people around them) and for truth (original scenes of life and the personal feelings of the artists). Their patterns of composition had thrown away the dramatics in Soviet realism to focus on scenes of everyday life. Due to the social conditions at the time, Father influenced society the most, while the Tibet series has more academic value. This is not only because of Chen's return to Realism, but also because of his respect for authentic European oil painting techniques. More than 30 years had passed, but when we look at Father, New Generation Tibetan and Shearing, we can see that these works do not follow the classical European Realist patterns but they reflect the artists' personal experiments with art. For example, Father was a reference to American Realism and is a monumental portrait of a Chinese farmer. Although New Generation Tibetan and Shearing were influenced by Impressionism, their warm tone and heavy colours as well as style transcend the Scar art, pursuing a country style that holds more aesthetics value.'
For Zhou, New Generation Tibetan undoubtedly was the painting that started his artistic career. He called it 'my most important piece of work'. It is not only a personal milestone in Zhou's life, but also the symbol of a time that marked an artistic revival and the beginning of a new age in the history of Chinese art.
Zhou Chunya (B. 1955)
Oil on canvas
Signed in Chinese (lower right); titled; signed; dated; inscribed in Chinese (on the reverse)
Chunya Zhou , 1980s, Paintings, canvas, oil, China, Contemporary, figures
Beijing, China, Chinese Museum of Art, Second National Youth Art Exhibition, December 1980-January 1981.
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
149.3 x 198.4 cm. (58 3/4 x 78 1/8 in.)
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