Art corner

Socialist realism is “a Marxist aesthetic theory calling for the didactic use of literature, art, and music to develop social consciousness in an evolving socialist state.” The phrase also specifically refers to a broad style of painting used in the 20th Century to convey Communist propaganda. Detail and attention to brushwork were not the point; the idea was to get the message out efficiently and none too subtly, and the result was illustration rather than art (cue comparisons to Norman Rockwell).

We can see and laugh at contemporary pastiches of the form in Hollywood Road art galleries’ ‘Chinese babe in army uniform’ works, which seem to be popular among some collectors, somewhere. But you don’t expect anyone to make the real thing anymore. So what a delight it is to see a fine example in the South China Morning Post.

It is called Dawn, by one Zhang Fangzhen. It portrays former Premier Wen Jiabao in the thick of emergency rescue work following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In terms of composition and colour it is a bit rough and ready, in line with the genre’s requirements (maybe finer draftsmanship was considered bourgeois decadence, or maybe communist regimes’ artists had production quotas like everyone else). Instead, it has some memorable touches: a stoical worker holds an improbably lengthy IV drip, while a medic seems taken aback by Grandpa Wen’s courage. The focal point of the picture is dead centre of the canvas (none of that avant-garde stuff here), and as a man of the people Wen shares it with a fireman. There are no blackboards, textbooks or kids’ backpacks in the rubble, nor distraught mothers in the background, thus no suggestion that the scene shows one of the hundreds of schools that collapsed in 2008 because corrupt officials had pocketed construction funds. We can assume that Zhang is not one of the artists persecuted for researching the death toll from that obscenity.

The layout people at the SCMP would have been oblivious to any irony in the juxtaposition of the Dawn story with a report of Chinese netizens’ outrage at the execution of a street hawker who killed two municipal officials who had beaten him. Maybe there simply is no irony. (The lack of irony is the irony – yes, that’s it.) The Dawn story’s angle is not that the artist produced the painting but that Wen wrote and thanked him after getting a copy. Wen was photographed and filmed a lot when in office caring deeply for travellers caught up in New Year train delays, hard-up villagers, and indeed victims of the earthquake. The painting is a tribute to that careful image-building effort, which helped to divert popular attention from the failure of Jiang Zemin’s successors to live up to expectations of reform. (Has current Premier Li Keqiang received a copy of Dawn?)

In his letter of appreciation to the artist, Wen expresses the hope that everyone will forget him. This is understandable. His family apparently accumulated over US$2 billion in assets over the years, including luxury properties here in Hong Kong. The New York Times uncovered the story, and prompted a big clampdown on business-related information, plus the Internet in general, plus of course its own activities in China. Which is why it was a surprise when Shanghai said its free-trade zone would have access to the NYT (and Facebook, etc) on-line, and not such a surprise when someone in Beijing (looks like the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) said ‘forget it’.

So Zhang Fangzhen’s Dawn (pity about the lame title) is worth cutting out and keeping as a living relic of a style, and for what it hides. Scratch the top layer away, and you will find things people want forgotten, which can’t have been Zhang’s intention. One of the charming things about socialist realism, seen from today, is that it can seem inadvertently subversive. With an opportunistic if not gratuitous mention of the word ‘palimpsest’, I declare the weekend open.

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21 Responses to Art corner

  1. Sojourner says:

    “The lack of irony is the irony …” Sweet.

    If “Dawn” had the signature Jeff Koons at the bottom this piece of Socialist Realist dross would be considered a postmodern tour de force.

  2. maugrim says:

    Now we have art criticsm. This blog has it all, in a good sense. I was only admiring the chutzpah of the picture myself this morning. So many subtexts, Uncle Wen as a ‘shining light’ being one of them. All that was missing was some sort of inference that the befallen building was the work of British or American agents. Perhaps a strewn Pepsi can provides such a reference? Good to see that the more things change………..

  3. Sojourner says:

    @ maugrim

    A “strewn Pepsi can” would be far too subtle.

  4. PropertyDeveloper says:

    But… the fireman’s arm is not only in front of Wen (awful Fung Seui) but groping for his genitals, so that Wen has to invitingly present his rump to the torch-bearer strategically situated behind.

    All this social tension and frenetically decadent imitation of latish Boys’ Own will surely be highlighted after the regime change by mid-western PhDs as obvious harbingers.

    maugrim, Wouldn’t a teddy bear with one arm hanging off simultaneously convey the pathos and the influence of the evil foreign devils?

  5. maugrim says:

    Sojourner and PD, hmm, yes. At first I thought there would be a nameplate of sorts amongst the rubble, saying that the building had been constructed by a Western multinational. However, amongst the homoerotic subtext (where are the women? Why is the soldier seemingly listening to that man’s penis?) notice that the faithful, red wearing workers have the English word ‘China’ above, hence dominating chinese chracters, suggesting the subjugation of the red flag by the evil west.

  6. Karen Eliot says:

    Karen Eliot approves this message

  7. Old Timer says:

    The title of this painting should be, “Hang on Lads, I’ve got an Idea!”

  8. Real Tax Payer says:

    Why isn’t Father Wen wearing a hard hat according to regulations (even HK TV reporters standing on the pier in typhoons now wear hard hats)

    And who the fuck is Karen Eliot ?

    PS : @ Old Timer : a better title might be:

    ” Can you see my Rolex ? It’s down there to the right”

  9. Big Al says:

    Definitely one for “up the arse corner”!

  10. Real Scot Player says:

    Karen Elliot is a well-known escort who works in Hong Kong and Singapore. 5k a pop apparently

  11. HKP says:

    More material for the iconographers: Bush amongst the WTC rubble, sans hard hat, talking into a megaphone.

  12. Real Sex Player says:

    @ Real Scot Player

    OK…… ! 😉

    So shouldn’t her contribution to the BL better read:

    “(Customers of) Karen Eliot approve this massage ” ?

    Must be a veerrrrrrry good massage at 5K per pop !

    I only pay $500 (that’ s HK$ not US$ )

    On which happy ending let the weakend indeed begin !

  13. PCC says:

    Caption: “Hold everything! It’s Ai Wei Wei!”

  14. reductio says:

    I like the way the doc at the back is yawning. He’s seen it all before.

  15. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ PCC

    That’s the best caption yet !

  16. PropertyDeveloper says:

    He’s not yawning, he’s grinning — normally 5 years in the clinker, so he’s taken out an artificial limb to girlishly hide his mouth.

  17. reductio says:

    These comments are great fun. Hemmers, you’ve hit the sweet spot with this one. Wonder if The Big Lychee will be available in the new Shanghai anything-goes* trading zone.

    * some terms and conditions may apply

  18. Sojourner says:

    @ Real Tax Payer

    I concur, PCC wins the caption competition. (It may be the only entry, but it’s still jolly good.)

  19. Joe Blow says:

    PCC’s caption is a childish, immature stab at humor that totally misses the gravity and profound meaning of this piece of art. Must be an Englishman, for sure. Heard any good vicar jokes lately ? Oops ! I have dropped my “knickers” !! Haha, everybody !

    The humanity and realism of this painting resonates with anyone who has been in a situation like this before, whether in person or from a distance as a concerned member of the human race. Imagine you loved one was trapped under that concrete pillar.

    “Walks a “bloke” into a pub…….”

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