Hong Kong

“Mao and New China”

Hanart Tz Gallery

“Mao and New China: Art from the Era of Mao and the 90s” contrasted propagandistic images of Mao Tse-tung with “Pop” depictions of Mao by contemporary artists from mainland China. The revolutionary­-era pictures, created to promote the ideals of the party, combine aspects of traditional Chinese painting with social realism. In contrast, the more recent Pop images use the style of mass media such as advertising and cartoons—capitalist propaganda—to poke fun at Chairman Mao.

During his nearly thirty years as head of the communist party, Mao and his cultural ministers required that Chinese artists toe the party line; the paintings and woodblock prints from this period thus portray the leader as peasant, revolution­ary soldier, and beneficent leader of the people. Some project the intended results of his New Society: robust New Fourth Army soldiers liberating grateful villagers; urban intellectuals happily marching into the countryside to work as peasants; and members of agricultural communes proudly taking inventory of food produced for the State. Mao’s ability to get artists to use their talents in support of “Invincible Mao Tse-tung Thought” is nowhere clearer than in an unsigned portrait possi­bly painted during the Cultural Revolution. Mao stands regally in the foreground, clutching a Chinese edition of the Communist Manifesto, while the heads of Marx (who resembles Michelangelo’s Sistine-ceiling God) and Lenin float above. Lenin’s head is slightly superimposed over Marx’s, and both are rendered more dimly than Mao, recalling a method used by tra­ditional Chinese painters to denote distant space. The message in this image is clear: the lineage of communism rests securely in Mao’s heroically proportioned hands.

The more recent “Pop” movement rec­ognizes the propagandistic power of Mao­ era art but twists the Chairman’s familiar form to produce giddy fantasies. Wang Zi­-wei’s Mao and Donald on Canvas,1994, depicts a series of Mao busts painted the color of US dollars and interspersed with images of Donald Duck paddling madly in a pink rubber-ducky boat. Some have the­orized that Donald Duck is one of the im­ages the West has used to export capital­ ism to the third world; and Wang’s painting suggests that Mao’s portrait has circulated within the same absurd realm. In his “Rouge Series: Young Mao,” 1994–96, Li Shan depicts the leader as a dandified youth, his voluptuous lips coyly smiling, a flower dangling tantalizingly from his mouth, and his eyebrows plucked to mani­cured perfection. In Li’s feminized portrayal, Mao’s wily powers and glory as party leader have been reduced to mere sex appeal.

In following the gaze of the three figures in the unsigned portrait of Mao with Lenin and Marx, the viewer’s eyes are led to the left—the political direction of the Communist party. Li’s Mao, however, looks down and slightly to the right. This may represent the role of the new Chinese artist as capitalist entrepreneur, or it may imply that Mao’s communist party is selling out to the West. While the “Pop” images may rewrite the official history of the party, they do not reveal its future direction.

Bridget Goodbody