Art and China’s Revolution

Art and China’s Revolution is the latest exhibition at the Asia Society Museum in New York City. Running until January 11, 2009, the huge exhibit focuses upon the artworks produced in China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution period of 1966-1976. The exhibit displays some 250 large-scale oil paintings, sculptures, woodblock prints, ink paintings, drawings, posters, and other art objects - making it the largest and most comprehensive show of its kind. Many of the works put on view have never been seen in the United States. For those unable to visit the museum, the institution’s Art and China’s Revolution website is an eye-popping and informative experience, which can also be supplemented with the show’s excellent catalog book.

An exhibition of this kind is naturally not without its controversies, but the most contentious aspect of the show is the fact that the Chinese government refused to loan artworks from the Cultural Revolution period to the Asia Society Museum. While China’s government attempted to censor the exhibit, works held in university collections and private hands in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and the United States, were loaned to the museum - allowing the show to go forward. Interestingly enough, the Sichaun Art Academy in China, which does not require government permission to loan works, sent part of their famous Rent Collection Courtyard sculptures to the groundbreaking New York exhibition.

The original Rent Collection Courtyard project was created in 1965 by a collective of eighteen teachers and students from the Sichaun Art Academy. The project was comprised of 114 life-sized ceramic sculptures arranged in narrative fashion, depicting the peasant farmers of Sichuan in servitude to the real-life landlord, Liu Wen-tsai. Initially displayed in the actual rent collection courtyard of Liu’s vast Manor-House, the multiple sculptures depicted the brutal poverty and merciless hardships suffered by peasants at the hands of Liu - and how they ultimately rose up against him. During the Cultural Revolution the sculptures toured China, and it is estimated that they were seen by over two million people. The sculptures on loan to the Asia Society from the Sichaun Art Academy are cast in Fiberglass from the originals.

Unlike China’s vibrant communist propaganda posters of the period, the Rent Collection Courtyard sculptures are almost unknown outside of China, so I have decided to publish a few select images of the statues on this web log. Those familiar with the “socialist realism” graphic style of China’s Cultural Revolution posters will immediately see the same aesthetics at work in the sculptures.

Over the decades I have acquired a small collection of posters and periodicals from China’s Cultural Revolution period, with one of my prized books being, Rent Collection Courtyard: Sculptures of Oppression and Revolt, a 1970 English language book published by China’s Foreign Languages Press. The book is heavily illustrated with photographs of the sculptures as they were first displayed at the rent collection courtyard of landlord Liu’s Mansion. The images and captions that appear in this article were taken directly from this rare out-of-print book.

For further reading on the subject of China’s past revolutionary art, pick up a copy of Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, by Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins. The book concentrates on the poster art created during the Cultural Revolution period, and with more than 150 color reproductions - it is the best compendium on the subject that I have yet seen.

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "This courtyard, built especially for the collection of rent, is surrounded by a hundred-meter long corridor in which stands the clay figures. Hungry peasants had to use the back door to pay rent." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Under the cold gaze of the landlord’s stooge, the poverty-stricken peasants trudge into the courtyard carrying the grains they have toiled so bitterly for." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "The trick winnower has reduced two full baskets of grain to one. With heavy hearts mother and daughter drag it to be measured." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Even a tottering, sick man has to drag in his rent on time." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Liu orders the village chief and a policeman to ransack the homes of peasants and pressgang them if they cannot pay their rent. Another family is broken up as the father is dragged away and the mother is knocked to the ground." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "With their carrying-poles they will smash the system of exploitation to bits." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "A Kuomintang soldier and a secret society henchman lay hands on the old peasant’s son as he rushed up to argue with the landlord Liu." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "'This is good grain!' Cries the old peasant." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "'Class brothers, unite to settle the blood debts with the landlords!" ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Only by thoroughly demolishing the man-eating system can the working people be emancipated." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Follow forever the Chinese Communist Party and raise high the red flag of revolution." ]

Comments are closed.