25 Silence

At the Asia Society in Hong Kong is an exhibition with a number of muted landscapes recalling Matisse or Cezanne. Quite a few capture scenes of snow. Made on scrap cardboard or homemade paper, these paintings seem innocuous, but they represent dissent. They are by brave artists who worked surreptitiously during and just after China’s devastating Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong dictated art must serve the state. This meant art had to abide by social realism—rosy-cheeked Red Guards striding into an everlasting optimistic future—or nothing. Dismissed as bourgeois, landscapes were dangerous to paint. The snow on roofs, footpaths and garden walls signified purity, a substitute for Mao’s urban drab.

“Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974 to 1985” is an unusual exhibition which brings together the works of 22 Chinese artists who quietly banded together during a repressive time. These artists shared techniques and forged a solidarity that helped them to outfox the authorities. Their art was a rebellion against “the pattern of brutality, narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and irrationality” institutionalised during the Cultural Revolution.

Three schools of artists, each with a distinctive style, emerged during the period: Wuming (No Name), Xingxing (Stars) and Caocao (Grass). The earliest group, No Name, started painting in 1972 and included a large number of women. Some worked in machinery factories at night so they could paint during the day. They helped each other by sharing miniature home-made paint boxes squirreled away in book bags when they travelled. Shi Zhenyu, whose 1965 modest-sized seascape (just 15 x 20 centimetres) is the earliest work in the show, was one of the few to hold down a steady job, though a most un-artistic one. During the bad years of the Cultural Revolution, he worked as a carpenter and electrician at a machinery plant at the Bureau of Light Industry.

The Stars group, also based in Beijing, is known for its resolve to thwart censorship. One morning in September 1979 they hung 150 works by 23 artists on the fence around the National Art Gallery in Beijing. Oil paintings, pen and ink drawings and sculptures went up, some suspended from ropes in the trees, others just placed on the street. In a memoir of the period, Wang Keping, a sculptor and leader of the Stars, described how on the first day word of mouth attracted a crowd of art lovers, including the chairman of the Chinese Artists Association, who offered his endorsement. By the third day, the police moved in and the show was closed.

Grass was a school in Shanghai dominated by ink painters who established a new style using ink that combined calligraphy with abstract expressionism. The founder of Grass, Qiu Deshu, was a gifted artist who served as a Red Guard, and was selected by his factory to participate in the propaganda painting classes at the Shanghai Art School. But he also experimented with forbidden techniques, such as woodcuts, pouring and splashing ink, and even making tears in the paper, to show his despair. For such innovation, he was fired from his job. Undaunted, he continued abstract painting with ink. Many of his works are now in important private collections in America.

The exhibition features two sculptures by Wang Keping. Perhaps the most stunning piece in the show is Wang’s “Silence”, which is a wooden sculpture of a man’s head with a round plug shoved into the mouth. This piece conveys some of the frustrations of working as an artist in China in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Mr Wang had a job as a playwright for the government television station, but his scripts were always rejected. He liked working with wood, and found piles of abandoned wood at a briquette factory that he bartered for theatre tickets. Fed up with the stultifying atmosphere, Mr Wang left for Paris in 1984, where he made a name as a sculptor. In September he will hold a retrospective show of sculptures at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, an important gallery in the city’s vibrant 798 art district.

The more than 100 paintings and sculptures in the show represent the beginnings of the contemporary Chinese art that has captured the international art market for more than a decade. After fighting the authorities and seeing little progress in freedom of artistic expression, many of the artists followed Mr Wang’s example and went abroad. Some went to New York, others to Europe. They studied at art institutions in ways they could never have done in China. Some sold works to established galleries in the West, many have paintings in prestigious private collections.

Then in the mid-2000s some started drifting back home to a vastly changed China. One of the younger artists in the Stars group was Ai Weiwei who fled to New York, studied at the Parsons School of Design, and has returned to Beijing with a global name. When they first started creating art more than 30 years ago, the spirited young artists of the No Name group could barely have dreamed they were laying the foundations for what would become a competitive, high-priced and internationally sought world of contemporary Chinese art.