In the past 100 years, China has changed dramatically, from imperial China to the Republic of China and then to Communist China under the leadership of Mao Zedong. After Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, reforms gradually reopened China to the world.
Today, China is among the world’s fastest-growing economies, becoming a global leader in renewable energy and artificial intelligence. China’s relevance in the contemporary art world has also increased. The works presented in the new CMA installation were produced by Chinese artists who refer to traditional media and artistic practices — such as working with ink on paper or silk — yet breach historic boundaries by using new formats, techniques, and subject matters.
The Art Newspaper’s Global Exhibitions Attendance Survey in 2019 announced, “It is official: Ai Weiwei is the world’s most popular artist.” Ai Weiwei is known for designing Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games. He is also known in the West for his social media presence, his political activism addressing social injustice, and for questioning cultural values. Treasure Box is made of recycled Chinese hardwood furniture by applying traditional Chinese methods of joinery without using glue, screws, or nails. Hexagonal and irregular openings reveal interior compartments and shelves, but the object itself is empty, and the artist leaves us to ponder its functionality and meaning.
The printmaker Liu Jing (born 1983) is the youngest artist in the show. Liu conceived Master Series three years ago, at the age of 34. Master Series features cultural leaders who contributed to China’s reformation and modernization during the Republican period (1912–49) and the Mao era (1949–76); all came under attack during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).
Technically, the prints combine digital design and woodblock printing with oil-based inks. While the prints resemble black-and-white photography, notice that the haunting, jet-black pupils of the two men do not show any reflection of light. This technique indicates that these are prints, not photographs.
Yan Wenliang (1893–1988), on the left, was one of the fathers of Chinese oil painting and an important educator and art academy director. Qi Baishi (1864–1954), on the right, remains one of China’s best-known modern ink artists, who excelled in simple, witty ink sketches of everyday subjects. Below is a painting by Qi Baishi in the CMA collection that depicts shrimp in his characteristically simple but expressive brushwork.
Artist Liu Dan is best known for his draftsman-like paintings of rocks. Dictionary demonstrates his masterful skill as a brush painter: it appears three dimensional but is simply a watercolor drawing on paper. The depiction of the book shows the characters that have formed the basis of Chinese culture, language, and art for millennia.
The book on which this painting is based is so small that it easily rests in the artist’s palm. It dates to the Republican period of the 1920s and ’30s, a time of change and reforms. Chinese dictionaries printed after the Communist takeover in 1949 contained simplified characters, to encourage literacy. The two pages revealed in the painting define words associated with “jade” and “water” — opposing dualities of liquid and hardness, of yielding and unyielding, of yin and yang. As such, Dictionary is a monument to traditional Chinese literature and philosophy.
Writing also interests artist Xu Bing. As a child, Xu had access to a world of books: his mother worked in the library and his father in the history department at Peking University. During the Cultural Revolution, Xu had to write propaganda posters, which taught him the power of words and text. This work shows his self-designed “square word calligraphy” for Western readers. Actually, what is written here is English and — believe it or not — it can be read by English readers. Every little square that resembles a Chinese character is in fact an English word composed of letters of the Roman alphabet. For example, the leftmost line starting with the top character reads “QUOTATIONS,” and the second character reads “FROM.” The third is “CHAIRMAN,” the fourth is “MAO,” and so on. The text presents Mao’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art held in 1942, in which Mao defined the role of art and artists under Communist Party rule.
Finally there is a delicate pair of silk shoes by the female artist Peng Wei. Peng Wei’s work demonstrates a refined elegance and unique aesthetic. The soles of this pair of shoes, made of transparent silk, are painted with erotic scenes that refer to the past, showing female figures with bound feet. The ballerina-style shoes, however, reflect a modern and more liberal way of living. The work’s title, Good Things Come in Pairs 8, references a Chinese proverb: Hǎoshì chéng shuāng. It can also be read as an allusion to the Chinese philosophical principle that when the forces of yin and yang — or male and female — are in balance, harmony and order are achieved.
Visitors can now see an exhibition of exciting new works installed in Chinese galleries 240A and 239 just before the Cleveland Museum of Art closed in March due to public health restrictions. Check out an audio tour on Chinese gallery highlights in both English and Chinese via the ArtLens App.
Discover more in the related video featuring Clarissa von Spee, Chair of Asian Art and James and Donna Reid Curator of Chinese Art: On View Now: Spotlight on a New Generation.