Regionalizing National Art in Maoist China: The Chang’an School of Ink Painting, 1942–1976

PhD defended at: 

The Ohio State University

Author: 

Yang Wang

Defended: 

2015

As the Chinese Communist Party sought to redefine socialism in the Chinese context and position itself in shifting international currents during the first decade of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (1949–1959), the country’s art establishment rejected Western modernism in favor of academic styles and selective forms of traditional Chinese practices. State-employed artists, tasked with visualizing party policies, placed themselves at the juncture of historical narratives and social discourses that defined the first decade and a half of the PRC.
This dissertation examines a particular group of artists, based in the northwestern provincial capital of Xi’an, who reformulated the traditional practice of ink and color painting (guohua 国画) as a modern artistic medium through their unorthodox brushwork and subject matter. Led by the Yan’an printmaker-turned-painter Shi Lu 石鲁 (1919–1982) and the former Dagongbao sketch journalist Zhao Wangyun 赵望云 (1906–1977), the six ink painters the Chinese Artists Association-Xi’an Branch employed garnered national acclaim for exhibiting their xizuo 习作 (“studies”) in a series of well-publicized exhibitions that began in October 1961 in Beijing. Praised for their integration of artistic style with the “character” of the northwestern region based on their firsthand observations, Shi, Zhao and their colleagues — He Haixia 何海霞 (1908–1998), Fang Jizhong 方济众 (1923–1987), Kang Shiyao 康师尧 (1921–1985) and Li Zisheng 李梓盛 (1919–1987) — earned a collective name: the Chang’an School (Chang’an huapai 长安画派).
The “success” of the Xi’an ink painters as a modern, regional ink painting “school” was considered not merely a local or personal achievement but a national one. Through five thematic chapters that focus on the school’s structural and theoretical foundations, this study suggests the Xi’an artists gained momentum through their ability to function effectively as a work unit (danwei 单位), as content providers for the mass media and as interpreters of the broad concepts of “life” and “tradition,” which aligned with political discourses of the early Maoist period.
This dissertation contends that an emotional confrontation with the nation’s path to sovereignty and modernization constituted the subtext of Chinese modernity in the early PRC, and that without participating directly in global trends that we identify as modernist art, the Xi’an artists visualized an alternative modernity based on the resiliency of Chinese art. By examining the formation and promotion of the Chang’an School, from the perspectives of its benefactors and proponents — the national art leadership, provincial leadership and the artists themselves — this dissertation suggests that “regional” and “traditional” art in the early PRC were negotiable constructs formulated jointly by the state, artists and viewers to assist in visualizing a communist Chinese nation.

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International Insitute for Asian Studies