A Hundred Years of History on Canvas

Respect by Fan Di’an, oil painting, 600x200cm. In June 2021, Fan Di’an visited the stone statue of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in his youth standing on the Orange Isle in Changsha, central China’s Hunan Province, and saw many people come that day with red Party flags fluttering in wind. He was inspired by the scene and created the painting. courtesy of Fan Di’an

Since 1920, many artists have endeavored to use art to reflect reality. Works of the era shone light in dark corners of society and encouraged people to pursue democracy and freedom. After the outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, the fight led by the Communist Party of China against the invaders won great support from the Chinese people, and a wave of artists headed to Yan’an in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province, a revolutionary base of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the time, and facilitated a peak in revolutionary art.

The 1935 work Roar, China! by Li Hua, like many other woodblock prints, reflects the fighting resolution of Chinese soldiers and civilians to resist foreign aggression and support the new trend led by Yan’an and other anti-Japanese revolutionary bases.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, creation within central themes has become a new trend of Chinese Art. From the 1950s through the 1970s, China organized four large-scale art creation drives on revolutionary history themes which inspired countless quality art classics including Founding Ceremony of People’s Republic of China by Dong Xiwen in 1953 and  Liberation of Beiping (Beijing) by Ye Qianyu, making up the lack of photography and depicting the revolutionary history in the first half of the 20th century with vivid images.  

Fan Di’an, born in 1955, is chairman of the China Artists Association and president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. As a leading figure in the Chinese art field, he has made outstanding contributions to promoting the development of contemporary Chinese art. courtesy of Fan Di’an

To create such works, artists dove into historical scenes to make them appear as realistic as possible. By reproducing history with images, they created a visual narration of history. Some important historical events were given more attention. For example, series about the Long March like 1951’s Taking the Luding Bridge by Force by Li Zongjin and The Red Army Crosses the Snowy Mountain highlighted the breathtaking courage and great spirit of Chinese soldiers during the Long March.

Since reform and opening up, works with themes expressing the collective memories of the country and the nation have been popular. Through the diversified expansion of creative techniques, forms, styles, and content, a new trend in an era of the full exploratory spirit and innovative consciousness emerged.

For example, an ink painting by Tian Liming to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the victory of the War of Resistance Against  Japanese Aggression depicted martyrs as an endless Stele Forest. Taihang Iron Wall created by Wang Yingchun and Yang Lizhou in 1984 depicted the historical scene of Zhu De, Peng Dehuai, Deng Xiaoping, and other veteran revolutionaries working hand in hand with soldiers and civilians in the Taihang mountain area to resist foreign aggression. Chinese ink paintings from the era employed delicate drawing skills to depict revolutionary martyrs with abundant emotion. Artists used symbolic techniques to paint revolutionary historical figures and events in a way that highlighted the spirit of revolutionary themes through innovative forms of artistic language.

The Song of Ramming Earth by Wang Wenbin, oil painting,The work shows the scene of several girls leveling the land with a ramming stone. The eye-catching light treatment and decorative colors show great vitality of those girls in work.

The artistic creation of this period shared a common phenomenon: Development of the times caused the broader understanding and expression of revolutionary history and realistic themes to undergo profound changes, especially among the younger generation of artists who began deploying artistic language with personal style to achieve breakthroughs and transcendence in creation and expression of major themes.

Over the past decade, China has launched numerous themed art creation projects to catapult the central themes of new art creation into a brand new development stage by making the themes of art creation more scientific and rigorous in organization.

Realizing integration of ideological values and artistic values within art themes, pursuing new artistic realms while preserving traditional creation traditions, and creating profound tributes to the times have become important missions shouldered by contemporary artists and methods to inspire artists to respond to the times.

Looking back at a hundred years of history, Chinese art has mirrored the development of the times and resonated with the emotions of the people. Today, appreciation and demand for excellent art are increasing, prompting artists to learn more about history to capture the rhythm of the times, understand changes in history, and reach out to the sentiments of their families and the country. Chinese artists today seek to produce work that touches hearts, resonates broadly, and reverberates eternally past the next hundred years.

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