The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Years of Living Dangerously: Brothers and Sisters Making History in the narrative painting of Shen Jiawei

The notion of a painter of epic, narrative realist history paintings working away in his studio in Bundeena, a small beach community on the southernmost edge of Sydney, seems absurd. Yet this is the life of Shen Jiawei, the Chinese artist who has made Sydney his home since 1989.

His monumental mural of 422 significant people who helped to shape China's modern history, focused on the years 1936 and 1937, is currently on display in the somewhat weird and unsympathetic location of the Everest Foyer of the Seymour Centre, the least appealing of Sydney's theatrical venues.

Here is my response, published in The Art Life today:

Brothers and Sisters Making History

The year 1937 was not just any old year in world history, nor in art history. In the Soviet Union Stalin was conducting his great purges. The Spanish Civil War was causing untold misery. In April of that year German and Italian planes bombed a Basque town at the behest of the Nationalist Government, resulting in the deaths of (perhaps) more than a thousand civilians. Picasso painted ‘Guernica’ to commemorate this horror. Later that year, Hitler organised his ‘Exhibition of Degenerate Art’ in Munich, vilifying Modernism and its practitioners as "incompetents, cheats and madmen". In China, the Communists were holed up in their mountainous Yan’an stronghold after the Long March of 1934 - 35, in which they had traversed over 9,000 kilometres of incredibly rough terrain. The American journalist Edgar Snow visited them there, working on his book ‘Red Star Over China’. The first resistance was formed against the Japanese occupation. In December that year, in Nanjing, somewhere between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese citizens were brutally slaughtered by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army.
Resized Shen Jiawei Exhibition_Image 1
Shen Jiawei, China 1936 – 1937: Years of Change, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist and China Studies Centre, University of Sydney
This is rich material for a history painter such as Shen Jiawei. He has produced a monumental mural representing 422 influential people who shaped events in China in the twelve months prior to the Japanese invasion. Thirty metres in length, ‘China 1936 – 37, Years of Change’ has been a labour of love for Shen, who taught himself to paint during the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution. Before he arrived in Australia in 1989, where at first he struggled to eke out a living drawing tourist portraits at Darling Harbour, he was well-known in China for a painting which became a famous propaganda poster, ‘Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland.’ Later, when the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing re-opened after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Shen Jiawei trained in that powerhouse of academic realist painting, grounded in Soviet Socialist Realism, honing his virtuoso figurative technique. Despite his successful Archibald Prize entries and his portraits of luminaries such as Pope Francis, Princess Mary of Denmark and Dame Marie Bashir (who opened the exhibition of his work at the Seymour Centre’s Everest Foyer this week) epic history painting is his passion. His ambition is Renaissance in its scale and scope.
Shen Jiawei, "Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland", 1974. (The face was considered insufficiently heroic by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, so she ordered it to be altered by another artist.)
One panel includes many of the same characters found in his earlier (1987) 6-panelled work ‘Red Star Over China’ which he completed two years before he came to live in Australia, and before he lost his faith in Communism. The title of the painting borrows the title of Edgar Snow’s account of the beginnings of the revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic, a book banned for thirty years in China. Both paintings include Snow and his wife Helen among their massive casts of characters. Another feature common to both works is the group of small boys who dance in red-starred singlets and caps in the foreground, representing the optimism of that particular moment in time. One of the Shaanxi revolutionaries included in ‘Red Star over China’ is Xi Zhong Xun, whose son Xi Jinping is the current Chinese President. Shen Jiawei said of this painting, “What is painted here is the first act of a tragedy…the youthfulness and ideals will be destroyed by later acts which are yet to be painted.”
Shen Jiawei with "Red Star Over China", photo Andrew Sheargold, source Sydney Morning Herald
The alternative title of Shen’s new work in Chinese, ‘Brothers and Sisters’, suggests another reading of history. Siblings may quarrel within the family but they will join together in the face of a common enemy. Professor Jeffrey Riegel, Head of the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney, described Shen Jiawei as a “serious scholar of history.” Certainly he has taken some liberties with historical accuracy in the interests of dramatic compositional groupings. Not all of these people were physically in the same place at the same time. But at an extraordinary moment in human history there were at most one or two degrees of separation between them. Shen paints with a moral imperative – to tell the truth and to represent historical events as he sees them, through his own view of the world.
The artist has carefully selected photographs from the period in order to paint each of the 422 portraits as convincingly as possible. Their faces gaze out at us. We are forced to see his dramatis personae, not as remote historical figures, but as complicated people with hopes, desires and disappointments. Riegel compared their serried eyes to the ranks of deities and immortals in the great Buddhist frescoes in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, with their grave and discomfiting gaze. Unlike Picasso, searching for visual metaphors to create his cry of outrage, ‘Guernica’, as a pacifist response to war, Shen’s vision of this period in Chinese history is more literal. But despite any reservations one may have about the contrariness of continuing to paint like a Renaissance master (who, let’s face it, would have had a team of assistants to paint the boring bits) it is similarly profoundly humanist in its intention. We begin to understand just how complex this history is. Opposing forces, contradictory ideologies, divergent points of view and, as a consequence, different memories of the same events. For anyone with an interest in China today, and how the Middle Kingdom became a powerful force to be reckoned with on the world stage, this is fascinating.
The exhibition of the work continues in the Everest Foyer of the Seymour Centre until November 11.