Crescent: Retrospectives of Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu
Curators: Feng Xi, Su Wei
Assistant Curators: Yang Tiange, Zheng Yahui
Opening: 2 pm, March 24, 2018
Exhibition Dates: March 24 – July 1, 2018
Venue: Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum
Abstract: Crescent: Retrospectives of Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu will open soon at the Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum. This exhibition project revolves around the artistic practice of Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu, who were the central figures of the Yuyuantan School of Painting emerged in the late 1960s and the No Name (Wuming) Group in the 1970s. Zhao and Yang’s practice dates back to the 1950s and their entire work, which spans decades, offers us a unique insight into China’s social transformation and artistic revolution from the 1950s to the present day. The inevitable yet extraordinary contradiction between their life and art is deemed as a premise for the exhibition narrative. Through research, exploration, and historical re-imagination, this exhibition presents a series of interconnected theoretical issues that are still significant in China’s art world today and examines how suppressed historical and aesthetic experiences are formed, interpreted, and applied in today’s context of nihilism.
Crescent as a metaphor that relates to changing times and spaces: an attempt to observe the artistic practice of ZhaoWenliang and Yang Yushu
The title of the exhibition, Crescent, is borrowed from the name of the Crescent Moon Society, a literary and political group founded in the Republican era of China in 1923. The Crescent Moon Society promoted relatively liberal, modernist work and discussions and advocated the primacy of technique and form, thus contrasting sharply with the Left, who endorsed literature that served the proletariats. The Society expressed strong opinions in many fields from literature to political systems, to schools of thought, and to academic debates. Because of this, they were described by the Left and in socialist writings as pro-capitalist. After the People’s Republic was established in 1949, the voice the “Crescent Moon” represented became increasingly low and more of an undercurrent. Furthermore, as socialist realist fine arts turned institutionalized and became an ideological vehicle, this voice was no longer an entity that actively engaged in cultural and political discussions, but was gradually deemed as a set of values opposite to that of socialism. In fact, the influence of “Crescent Moon” could also be seen in the practices of socialist realist fine arts, as its formalistic appeal of artistic language were partly used in constructing the discourse of socialist realism. That said, although the presence of “Crescent Moon” can be found in the aesthetic field and was included in the framework of realism, it represented a voice only on the level of formalistic language in arts under the banner of diversity. Therefore, this voice was subjected to suppression and censorship at all time. This is due to the dominance of state power and the mutual exclusion of China and the West during the Cold War period. The role it could potentially play in philosophy, schools of thought, values, and discourses remained rather constrained on all fronts. The sense of nascence implied in the name of the group, the Crescent Moon Society, resonated with the newness embedded in a variety of socialist realist terms such as the “new man”, “new methods”, and the “new world”. Nevertheless, its presence was mostly confined in aesthetic discourses. This symbolises the precarious position fine arts was in and the new part it had to play in China’s post-1949 political history.
Crescent, as the title of this exhibition, is a metaphor that relates to changing times and spaces, a start of the story that we are telling here through these two individual artists. What is on offer is a three-dimensional perspective on their work.
Zhao Wenliang (1937- , born in Harbin) and Yang Yushu (1944- , born in Beijing) were both born before 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded. Therefore, they have experienced the changes China has undergone in social history and artistic practices since 1949. The two met in the late 1950s when they were learning painting and their relationship has since been one of mentor and student as well as of friendship. They have had a hard life, struggling financially, and painting has been the most important thing for them and their only hope. They shared a small unit in Fangzhuang, Beijing from 1992 to 2011 and then moved into an ordinary residential block near Yayuncun, Beijing.
From 1963 on, Zhao and Yang focused increasingly on painting en plein air. During this time, Zhao and Yang met some young painting enthusiasts, who, drawn to their style, began learning from and painting together with them. Together they formed loosely the Yuyuantan School of Painting. Zhao and Yang got to know another group of young amateur painters in the 1970s and they all continued painting under the trying political circumstances at that time. Zhao and Yang played the role of mentor for these young painters, who formed the main members of the No Name Group. The No Name Group held a secret exhibition on December 31, 1974 and later two self-titled public exhibitions, one in 1979 and the other 1981. Indeed, Zhao and Yang have always strived to keep their own style and held themselves to demanding standards. Even in the 1980s when modern art movements were prevailing in China, Zhao and Yang did not drastically alter their own technique and style to follow the trend, but kept exploring and strengthening their own method that was formulated initially in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, they consciously distinguished their work from what was popular; some of their paintings even had traces of classical Chinese philosophy and aesthetics in them.
A major challenge to us curators would be: how do we fully and truthfully tell these two artists’ story of making art in hard times? On the other hand, their work reflects the institutionalization and the changes of discourse in Chinese fine arts since 1949. How to consider these artists’ relationship with the authoritative framework of the state from a historical and critical perspective forms the most crucial theoretical task of this exhibition.
A three-dimensional perspective on Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu’s work: from historical re-imagination to the issues we confront in China’s art world today
The part of the exhibition that is located on the second floor of the museum deals with the complex relationship between the two artists and the overarching authoritative framework that is socialist realism from the perspective of historical criticism. We ask how their work, often labelled as “impressionist” or “Matisse-inspired”, sat under the authoritative framework, what significance it was given, and how its status has changed. To some degree, the narrative embedded in this part flowed from an art history perspective. This narrative does not refer directly to the work on display, but manifests itself as a metaphor as the narrative addresses directly or indirectly individual pieces of portrait, still life and landscape.
The part of the exhibition on the first floor is entirely dedicated to these two artists; it presents and examines the evolution of the aesthetic language of each of them. Zhao Wenliang decided to paint in the mid-1950s and imitated paintings of Soviet socialist realism. In the early stages of his career, Zhao was gradually drawn to the application of color. Inspired by the method of “blue-blue-grey-grey-purple-purple”, which he learned at the Xihua Art Preparatory School (this method focuses on colors and lights and is heavily connected with impressionism), he created his own style, which featured centrally primary colors and sharply contrasting colors. Moreover, Zhao recorded a large proportion of his life experiences and emotions in his paintings and throughout his entire career linked his work to vital principles such as justice and freedom.
Yang Yushu began painting seriously under Zhao’s mentorship in 1961 and his style of using crisp, bright, and compact colors started to form in the 1970s. His method resembled a camera taking a close-up photo and he would use this method to set the frame of a painting, which made the painting look alive, bringing out the life of shapes, colors, and objects. From the 1980s through today, Yang has made a series of highly symbolic paintings with his unique way of using cool colors and hard edges of colors; his artistic outlook also incorporated classical Chinese aesthetics and moral ideals.
On the other hand, from the 1960s Zhao and Yang started painting en plein air in places like the Yuyuantan Park in Beijing for self-training of the painting method and for inspirations from nature. At any rate, they were not able to paint at home due to the political circumstances at that time. Painting en plein air, prior to 1976, was in fact a political as well as artistic action. It provided some respite from the repressive life of that time as these artists brought small art supply cases and tiny paintings with them and made art in secret. What is extraordinary is that they did not stop after 1976 and have held onto this method even to this day, not swayed by the popularity of modernism. Their paintings en plein air are grouped here based on where the work was made. The exhibition also introduces the secret and public exhibitions which Yang and Zhao organised and participated in, showing some of their paintings featured in those exhibitions with explanatory text.
The third floor is a relatively simple-looking space. Zhao’s and Yang’s paintings are displayed alternately. A series of paintings with metaphors embedded are featured in this space. They cannot entirely be categorized as portrait, landscape or still life, even though the subject matter came from real life originally. From 1949 to 1976, these types of paintings could not enter the public imagination. They seem as if they do not belong in their time and could not correspond with the intense reality. Some have a touch of religious air to them. Others are directly related to dreams, hopes, and imagination. Still others look quite abstract. Today when we look at these works, there is no guarantee that we can feel the transcendence via the image to compensate for the time difference in history. The twists and indebtedness symbolized by the images, however, are stronger than the timeline in social history that emphasizes the present over the past. These paintings do not depict the anxiety or the concerns about the society, nor do they abide by the rules that require certain styles to represent specific thoughts, however, to a large degree, they pioneer a purely aesthetic space. In this aesthetic space, the heterogeneous elements that are unable to be fully deposited or have been filtered out of the framework of Socialist Realism finally settle in a space to survive and thrive, and further inspire a possible inherence and a spiritual appeal.
Indeed, Zhao’s and Yang’s work provides an excellent example of contradictions in art. While these artists were denied subjectivity, their art was relocated in the framework of socialist realism. Their work has the capacity of taking us back in time and yet we cannot be entirely sure whether the painting is contemporary or from an older era. The exhibition also aims to provide an alternative perspective to consider the context where the inherence of individual artists was formed. With this in mind, we also hope to ask art practitioners of today how they see these issues through this exhibition and learn from their perspectives.
We will hold a series of talks and seminars by researchers and scholars of art and philosophy during the exhibition in order to discuss relevant issues in depth. An art and research residency program will also be launched, in which one artist and one researcher will be invited to work for a period here at the Inside-Out Art Museum in relation to this exhibition, the work of Zhao and Yang as well as the extant literature on them. More than 1,000 paintings are accessible during the residency. Application must be submitted by March 9, 2018.
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