“You wouldn’t stage an exhibition called “Men’s Art," would you?” My companion commented on the way to CAFA to see ‘Self-Image: Women Art in China.' The idea of an exhibition focussing explicitly on men’s art is quite incongruous anywhere but especially, perhaps, in China, where the art scene is truly male-dominated; the roster of names associated with the advent of contemporary art in China are almost all male. Were there to be a chronological exhibition of art by men only, chances are it would be called something like ‘Masters of Contemporary Chinese Art.' There is no explicit gender distinction, but one would at the same time be surprised to find work by women on show. Conversely, a chronological exhibition of work made by women must declare itself thus: ‘Self-Image: Women Art…’ Put most simply, in the case of art by women, gender alone is enough to frame a show; for men, it is not.
That difference firmly established, the fact of an all-pervasive ideology cannot be underestimated. It is difficult for those who, because of their age or home environment have experienced nothing like it to really grasp the hold that Communism had over the Chinese nation’s imagery. The exhibition begins with a powerful – one might say sassy– self-portrait by Pan Yuliang from 1940. The other self-portraits or portraits that follow are strong, too, though much that is written about work of this period aligns it with the mode of ‘parlour’ painting that stretches far back into Chinese history to a time when perhaps only concealed courtesans or ‘outside’ prostitutes could exercise any kind of right in terms of artistic expression. Much as they might indeed keep to floral motifs, similar poses and painterly realism, these paintings do speak of different individual personalities and of a will to create. The clusters of photos and small pictures that the exhibition places amongst the art works as documentation are thought-provoking: the artists themselves and snatches of their world.
Come 1950, all this was to change. The exhibition text very aptly describes the ‘uprooting’ of individualism from this time until 1970. Women might have ‘held up half the sky,' but its limit was not one they could aspire to for themselves or their art. In terms of artistic expression, this slogan served only to gather women into the ideological cloud that enveloped imagery of this time. Thus, there follow brimming smiles and braided hair, images of workmanship and earnest endeavour, though they are not without variation and aesthetic skill. Opinions may differ, but there seemed in some of these paintings – Wang Xia’s ‘Island Girl’ for example – a particular robustness behind these criteria. After this point in the exhibition is where a degree of similarity ends. A jarring difference from the Socialist tableaux comes in the form of portraits by Wang Yin Cun c1980, which are also utterly different amongst themselves; one bears on Cubism with its white and petrol blue hues depicting an angular female face, while another is washy, the pigment bleeding through a layer of water. On a diagonally opposite wall, a slick woodblock print by the same artist of a figure in round sunglasses testifies to the degree of experimentation going on at this moment, when artists – female and male – encountered forms and styles from outside China and began to test them in their own work. This part of the show is almost overwhelming, with so many large scale and variously painted works. It is a vibrant sight – like a pantheon of portraits ranging from small, serial pictures of blotchy, acid/pastel coloured faces to a stark piece by Liu Man Wen showing a girl with a totally white face, as if wearing a mask. Nearby, Chen Xi’s striking painting of a girl hastily applying mascara as she sits legs open and knees-up on the carpet, ignoring a blaring TV behind her to her left, is a million miles from the fixed Socialist smiles and ready poses on the wall behind. On the TV screen are political-looking figures, one making a speech, but for her they signify no priority. Encased in now-ubiquitous TV-land they are but background noise, if even that, Now young girls like this are otherwise engaged on a Saturday night. Mature in feel and sophisticated in their rendering are the pieces by Yu Hong from 2003. Departing from domestic/interior scenery with a portrait of a naked pregnant woman on a beach, her work is bare and heavy with personal feeling, the breadth of Motherhood as experience and generational consciousness. Following this cacophony of paintings from the period of the 1980s-1990s sits a giant sculpture of a seated, shaved, naked young woman by Xiang Jing from 2005 entitled "Your Body." The scale of this gigantic graphic figure smacks of authority and a certain classical weight yet her bland, bulbous eyes, slumped posture and flaccid breasts convey nothing if not malaise, introversion and social-sexual fatigue.
A little confusing in this exhibition is that the works are not shown strictly chronologically, but perhaps this better serves the purpose of exploring the interrupted and experimental nature of women’s self-expression during the rocky period of the 20th century and the opening of the 21st in China. Somewhat uncanny are two sculptures by Wang Qi that render in 3D famous Western paintings - one by Lucian Freud and the other by Modigliani. Opposite this is a large work by Lin Tianmiao – one of China’s foremost female artists. In this piece Lin’s own face, rendered in milky white and grey tones, is partially covered with fine white strands of thread that cover the left side of the work. The threads are intended as metaphors for daily life and the minor customs and habits that compose culture and envelop and bind the individual. It is engaging here to hark back to Pan Yuliang’s portrait of 1940 and to see how femininity is invoked across the century. Interviewed in 2008, Lin commented that China is not ready for feminism; her work shows a deep exploration of feminine associations and perspective, however, and this piece in particular makes a real impact.
Here, it seems, the show ends quite abruptly. Upper floors of the gallery are cordoned off, ‘closed for installation.' In answer to the point that one would not see an exhibition of “men’s art," why then stage this one purely of "Women’s Art?" The history and socio-political environments that frame these works are truly unique, hugely influencing women’s roles and creativity. This exhibition is engaging – though of course not comprehensive (painting dominates, for example, and the layout is not the most inventive) – in showing a wide range of work by very different women across a huge period of time. The lasting impression is of something still unfolding and with great energy, and that deserves its own space, if only to make up for lost time.
-- Iona Whittaker
(All images courtesy of the CAFA Art Musuem and the arists.)