View of “Salon, Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective,” 2017. Photo: Fang Yongfa.

View of “Salon, Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective,” 2017. Photo: Fang Yongfa.

“Salon, Salon”

Inside-Out Art Museum 中间美术馆

View of “Salon, Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective,” 2017. Photo: Fang Yongfa.

Political terms such as two-line struggles or revisionism—terms the Communist Party had long communicated to the public in a top-down fashion—are now seldom publicly articulated by Chinese officials. As social stability has fallen prey to the ultimate principle of economic development, the state has largely eliminated the space for political debate. This fracture was deliberately highlighted in “Salon, Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective,” the third exhibition of “From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Legacy of Socialist Realism in Chinese Contemporary Art,” a research project initiated by artist Liu Ding and art critic Carol Yinghua Lu, via artworks displayed side by side with the historical objects and archives associated with them. 

In “Melancholy,” one of the essays in the exhibition guide, Liu—borrowing the modern poems circulated “underground” during the Cultural Revolution—rebrands the self-expression and group communication in arts among intellectual youth during the 1970s as a kind of subjective practice of reflecting on the revolution and its accompanying spiritual awakening. In the exhibition, amateur paintings by such intellectuals were juxtaposed with work by artists such as Liu Haisu, Wu Dayu, Sha Qi, and Wu Guanzhong—older painters influenced by early modern Western aesthetics. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, painters who had been “politically rehabilitated” began once again to display their works. Echoing this situation, self-organized artist collectives such as No Name Group, Stars Group, and April Photographers Society emerged one after the other in the late 1970s. They gained exhibition opportunities in the government system, benefiting greatly from the politically rehabilitated cadres of the China Artists Association who returned home after the Cultural Revolution. Thus, in the early 1980s, unlike the underground status of Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s, there was a brief comingling of official art and the art created by those outside the system.

Liu quotes from a speech given by Jiang Qing—Mao’s wife at the time—at a conference of literature and arts on November 28, 1966, when the Cultural Revolution was just beginning. Her main point: Be aware that the Western capitalist artistic lifestyle is poisoning the Chinese people. But how had the capitalist arts and lifestyle entered a country that had not been exposed to the Western world? Although the exhibition didn’t directly answer this question, it gave clues for further exploration. In the 1960s, before the Cultural Revolution, there were two quite active underground salons in Beijing: X Poetry Society, founded by Guo Shiying, one of the sons of Guo Moruo (the first president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences), and Solar Brigade, led by Zhang Langlang, whose father, Zhang Ding, was then the dean of the Central Academy of Arts and Design. Most of those involved in these salons were the children of senior cadres and high-level intellectuals in Beijing, and thus afforded them access to neican (internal reference materials circulated within the party), foreign catalogues, and Western modern music inaccessible to the larger society. They frequently got together to discuss literature and art, to try out all kinds of modern poetry writing, and even to play Beatles songs in public in Beijing. Mang Ke and Bei Dao, co-founders of the poetry periodical Today in Beijing in 1978, were friends of Zhang Langlang’s brother. It can be said that from 1972 to 1982, the underground art scene—led primarily by intellectual youth—had at least one foot in the internal political elite. But as a result, the kind of cultural life that had exclusively belonged to one class or circle began to circulate among the youth and evolved into a new kind of urban culture. Today’s audience, informed by memories of that period, seeks to relive its long-lost political ideals.

Sun Dongdong

Translated from Chinese by Chelsea Liu.