Modern Period 1912–present

Selections from the Collection

The tumultuous changes in China in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave rise to new artistic and cultural paradigms. Modern and contemporary painting, calligraphy, and experimental art reflect these changes, and, when set against the long artistic tradition of pre-modern China, allow for an engagement with such issues as art education, cultural identity, modernization, politicization, and cultural interaction with the West.

With the opening of additional ports to Western powers following the Opium War (1839–42), the city of Shanghai became a major commercial center. A new thriving urban culture and system of art patronage emerged to attract many of the brightest talents. Living as a professional artist, Li Ruiqing (1867–1920) moved to Shanghai where his close friend the calligrapher Zeng Xi (1861–1930) also resided. A Qing loyalist, Li is known for infusing his modern calligraphy and painting with elements of historical seal- and clerical-script calligraphy discovered on ancient bronze vessels and stone carvings. For many artists of this period, and down to the present, such elements of China's past figured heavily in an ever–present dialectic tension between cultural identity and modernization. A somewhat similar trend is also seen in a group of traditionally trained painters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who painted for literati scholars and the new mercantile elite in Shanghai. Influenced by the styles of the Yangzhou Eccentrics, the Shanghai School painters used past styles in different ways, in new contexts, and in new combinations. In bird-and-flower painting they commonly mixed bright colors with a highly expressionistic loose-brush manner. Among their ranks were the painters Ren Yi (1840–1895), Xu Gu (1824–1896), and Wu Changshuo (1844–1927).

With the fall of the Qing dynasty and founding of the Republic of China in 1912, the legacy of traditional painting, calligraphy, literature, and learning came to be relegated to the classical or dynastic past. In the arts, the call for national reform and modernization was championed by both those who called for the adoption of European techniques to transform Chinese painting into a Westernized style (xiyanghua), and those who looked to past Chinese models to define a new modern national style (guohua). In the early twentieth century the first public art schools were established, and teaching focused on a division between Western techniques and traditional Chinese styles. During this period, many painters also studied abroad in Japan and Europe, yet worked in modified traditional styles once they returned home. Many of these artists, such as Chen Hengke (1876–1923) and Xu Beihong (1895–1953), became teachers of Western techniques and theory in public art schools.

With the goal of modernity there also came notions of greater social and political functionality. Art was no longer only a private pleasure enjoyed in leisure; in cosmopolitan centers and through printed or photographic reproductions, it developed a wide public audience. Whereas painters advocating a Westernized style sought to achieve realistic representation so as to be more easily understood by a broad public, the proponents of a national style endeavored to move beyond mimetic realism. They argued that beyond the form-likeness achieved by photography or "scientific" methods of representation, works of art had an inherent poetic or expressive quality beyond representation. An example of such an expressive form in the arts of China is calligraphy, where a single brushstroke, a dot or line, can be intrinsically beautiful by itself. The traditionalists turned to Chinese calligraphy and paintings of the past, seeking elements that could serve the purpose of modern expression while at the same time fostering a Chinese cultural identity.

In the Republican period between 1912 and 1949, attempts at modern painting were clothed in a wide variety of styles, based on both traditional Chinese and Western methods. In common among these artists was a renunciation of the traditional literati styles of painting and calligraphy. Painters in the Shanghai School used traditional forms in innovative ways. In Canton, Gao Jianfu (1879–1951) returned from Japan to found the Lingnan School, convinced that a combination of Western realism with traditional Chinese painting could give rise to a modernized style. Oil painting based on Western models also came to exert a significant influence, but never found a market in China, instead becoming an important academic endeavor that became culturally significant through reproductions in print and other media.

Against the prevalent belief in Social Darwinism and the benefits of Western science and democracy, the First World War brought disillusionment, which was further compounded by the disappointing treatment of China by the Allied powers in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. German territories in China were not to be returned to China, but were instead to be given to Japan. On May 4, 1919, three thousand students gathered in protest in Tiananmen Square, ending in violence and mass arrests. Against the background of the May Fourth movement, the writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) and his group began using the ancient Chinese art form of pictorial woodblock printing in combination with Western avant-garde print styles to express moral, political, and social concerns.

In the eight years of Japanese military occupation between 1937 and 1945—followed by four more years of political strife and warfare associated with the Communist struggle for power—calligraphy, painting, and woodblock printing were used to rally anti-Japanese resistance, expose social problems, and offer political criticism and satire. Social utility became an integral part of artistic duty and prepared the way for the Russian-inspired styles of socialist realism after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The era of Socialist Realism was dominated by didactic figure painting and patriotic landscapes. The audience was now the general populace, and oil on canvas served as a potent vehicle for the new art, which was now also disseminated in print media. A distinctly Chinese adaptation of the Socialist Realist style was developed by the 1960s with the incorporation of traditional ink painting methods and a folk, or people's, aesthetic.

The Cultural Revolution (1966–76) marks a crossroads when traditional literati values were eviscerated but never extinguished. Paintings such as In Revolution There Is Justice (1968) in the Princeton University Art Museum exemplify a style developed in deliberate reaction against the elite or literati painting and calligraphy traditions in imperial China. Such reactions can be seen in the use of bright colors and the development of an impersonal, mechanical calligraphy script. Art theory and manifestos of the period adopted the cry for art to serve the aims of the state. In contrast to the personalized tradition of literati art, the new paintings were often anonymous or signed by a factory division or collective group.

After the Cultural Revolution era, many artists struggled to reconnect with traditional styles of painting and calligraphy, but the old methods for learning, such as tutelage under a master or training in a workshop, had largely disappeared. Each artist approached the problem of searching for tradition and identity in novel ways. Some taught themselves brushwork through photographic reproductions, while some adapted Western techniques and ideas of composition to traditional themes and materials. In Taihang Mountains (Princeton University Art Museum) painted in 1985 by Jia Youfu (b. 1942), the artist combined observation from nature with the monumental landscape tradition of the Northern Song (960–1127). Jia devoted fifteen years to painting the Taihang mountain range, which was not only a patriotic site during the Sino-Japanese war but was also the epitome of the Northern Song landscape vision as seen in the recluse painter Fan Kuan's (d. after 1023) Travelers amid Streams and Mountains (National Palace Museum, Taibei).

Other artists chose to confront traditional painting and calligraphy, thereby establishing a dialogue linking the past and present. Xu Bing's (b. 1955) Book from the Sky (Princeton University Art Museum) is composed of some 4,000 invented characters that have the appearance of Chinese characters but are totally unreadable. First exhibited in the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing that was linked to the tragic June Fourth student demonstration at Tiananmen Square, the books represent a reaction to the history of writing, calligraphy, and book culture in China. In an essay for the Princeton University Art Museum's Book from the Sky exhibition in 2003, Jerome Silbergeld writes that "Xu Bing's 'writing' (or non-writing) might be considered an 'abuse of language,' a reminder of how language has already been abused by those in control of it, and as a strike against those who have violated the written word through modern political propaganda."

Besides contemporary painting in traditional styles, experimental art addresses some of the most controversial issues in Chinese art today. In the years since the Cultural Revolution, the influx of outside artistic and cultural ideas has led to experimentation in a wide range of media and forms, including digital, film, installation and performance art, and photography. Theoretical and visual developments from outside China were often assimilated out of historical and cultural context and refashioned in novel ways that transgressed boundaries. Up until the 1990s, much of this type of experimentation reflected upon the memory of the Cultural Revolution, as can be seen in Hai Bo's (b. 1962) Them #6 (Princeton University Art Museum), which poignantly juxtaposed group portraits of the same sixteen women taken in 1973 and again as survivors in the post Cultural Revolutionary period. Since the 1990s, the themes explored in experimental works have increasingly focused on the alienation and dislocation that have been the result of the rapid societal and cultural changes that China has endured during the past quarter century.

As Chinese experimental and commercial art has taken its place in the international arena, new issues have arisen about the identity of the arts of China. Some artists now create for the international art market, and many now work and reside in countries outside China. Should the work of these artists, as well as those of Chinese descent who have never lived in China, be considered Chinese, and what about the greater numbers of non-Chinese artists who are now working more and more in Chinese manners and styles?

Further Readings

Julia F. Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1979 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, et al., A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth-Century China (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1998).

Britta Erickson, Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words: The Art of Xu Bing (Seattle: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; and University of Washington Press, 2001).

Wen C. Fong, Between Two Cultures: Late-Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001).

Ellen Johnston Laing, The Winking Owl: Art in the People’s Republic of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

Gao Minglu, ed., Inside Out: New Chinese Art (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; New York: Asia Society Galleries; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

Jerome Silbergeld, China into Film: Frames of Reference in Contemporary Chinese Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 1999).

Jerome Silbergeld, Hitchcock with a Chinese Face: Cinematic Doubles, Oedipal Triangles, and China’s Moral Voice (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

Jerome Silbergeld with Gong Jisui, Contradictions: Artistic Life, the Socialist State, and the Chinese Painter Li Huasheng (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993).

Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1990).

Michael Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

Wu Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 1999).

Wu Hung et al., Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art: 1990–2000 (Guangzhou: Guangdong Museum of Art, 2002).

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Old Labor Revolutionary Team of the Vehicle Repair Section, Changxindian Dist.
In Revolution There is Justice
China, Modern period, 7/1968
Gouache on paper (framed)
ca. 87.5 x 180 cm.
Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund