Nudity, abstraction, religious imagery, decorative style--these are not the elements usually associated with painting in the People's Republic of China.
This reproduction volume on one of China's new regional painting schools shows how much Chinese art, and our access to it, has changed in the 1980s.
The book is the product of a collaboration between Allan Fingerhut, whose Minneapolis gallery introduced key members of the Yunnan School to American viewers, and Joan Lebold Cohen, the well-informed author of the most extensive work on recent Chinese art, "The New Chinese Painting, 1949-1986 (Harry Abrams, 1987).
The Yunnan School takes its name from the southwestern frontier province of Yunnan to which several young painters from China's major art centers were sent, partly as punishment, in the 1960s.
In the freer atmosphere after the Cultural Revolution, they joined like-minded colleagues throughout China in pushing for more individual expression and a general opening to previously proscribed modern Western art from the Post Impressionists on. They also, like many artistic revolutionaries, went deep into their own tradition to justify innovation. In this case, the inspiration came from long neglected traditions of Buddhist religious art--the dynamic linear qualities of 4th-Century relief sculpture and the vibrantly colored murals from the cave temples at Dunhuang in Chinese Central Asia.
But it was the influence of the immediate environment that was most decisive in giving the Yunnan School its unique character. With its mild "hill station" climate, lush semi-tropical vegetation and variety of colorful ethnic minorities, Yunnan has been a source of exotic inspiration to artists from Central China ever since the Sino-Japanese War drove the modern cosmopolites of the coastal cities into China's vast hinterland.
The founders of the Yunnan School, graduates of Peking art academics such as Jiang Tiefeng, Ting Shaokuang and Liu Shaohui, were in a similar kind of internal exile but for a much longer period. This gave them ample time to penetrate deeply into the rich mix of ethnic cultures, customs, and folk arts in this frontier area of Chinese civilization. Then, when the opportunity for meaningful personal creation came at the end of the 1970s, they forged a coherent style and movement out of their Yunnan experience. For a brief period, it put remote Yunnan at the forefront of China's avant-garde.
To the Western viewer, the most familiar feature of their new style would be the semi-abstract forms often suggestive of Miro or Picasso. Among Chinese audiences, who had been cut off from all sources of Western modernism since 1949, this alone stirred considerable excitement.
So did the daring use of "heavy color" obtained by painting a special type of rice paper on both sides with native material and vegetable pigments. Combined with a highly decorative and deliberately flattened surface, it produced a distinctive style that resembled neither traditional Chinese ink painting or modern oil painting as it had been practiced in China.
Finally, as if their bold stylistic changes were not enough to excite young artistic radicals and shock older Establishment conservatives, they frequently used erotic female imagery based on the customs and folklore of Yunnan's ethnic minorities.
This too hit a sensitive nerve among China's cultural authorities still reeling from the unprecedented demands for freedom in all areas voiced by the recently suppressed activists of the "Democracy Wall" movement. Yuan Yunsheng, a Peking painter sometimes associated with the Yunnan group, attracted the greatest attention with his nude figures in the Peking airport murals, but some of the works at the Yunnan School's 1981 exhibition in Peking were also judged too shocking for TV transmission.
By the early '80s, the Yunnan School was at the center of the national controversy over what directions Chinese art should take in the new era of slackened government controls and opening to the outside world.
It continues as a creative force in Chinese art, but by the late '80s, many of the school's most controversial features have acquired general acceptance or at least acquiescence. Moreover, most of the founding figures are in the United States.
Of these, Jiang Tiefeng (b. 1938) is probably the best known in both the United States and China. His style is very lyrical, at times verging on sweetness, with intricate linear patterns imposed on "heavy color" backgrounds. He has a fondness for female nudes who somehow suggest Picasso, the culture of the Dai minority people, and traditional Chinese paintings of beautiful women all at the same time.
His slightly younger colleague, He Neng (b. 1942), also emphasizes line and color but his compositions are somewhat more solid, frequently suggestive of the woven textiles or batik art which Yunnan's minority peoples practice. He also draws more frequently on folk art themes and motifs, some of them evoking Buddhist symbols.
In fact, recent works of these two artists, both of whom are handled by Fingerhut Gallery, make up almost two-thirds of the book. For art historical purposes one might wish for more works from the school's formative years, 1978-1982, when it was an innovative and controversial force in Chinese art.
But this is a small quibble compared to the value of the material Cohen has assembled, including works by some of the younger Yunnan School painters still in China. Her informative text and excellent photographs are also extremely valuable.
The critical notes to the paintings (presumably by the author) are perhaps somewhat too laudatory and uncritical, but I would only quarrel with one point--the overuse of the phrase earth mother. That motif is indeed prominent, but not all of the nude and semi-nude female figures are motherly. The overt eroticism of minority peoples' cultures, which contrasts strongly with the more repressed sexual mores of the Chinese, is even more striking.