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.