New Spring

Carol Yinghua Lu

Beijing Oil Painting Society booklet, 1979.

New Spring Painting Exhibition (Xinchun huazhan) was not a show I saw in person. And there is not much visual record of it, as far as I know; those directly involved seem not to have produced any photographic documentation. Furthermore, in historical narratives of contemporary art in China, it is usually only mentioned in passing, as one of the exhibitions to emerge after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Despite all this, the show was likely more decisive than the spotty historical record would suggest.

Zhang Qiang, an art critic who visited it, described it in retrospect as the first painting exhibition after the end of the Cultural Revolution that was not organized by the government, and noted that it attracted a continuous stream of visitors.11. Zhang Qiang. “Since When There Emerged Artist Groups?,” in New Tide of Painting (Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Art Publishing House, 1988), 83. Even more important, the critic wrote, was the fact that the participating artists chose their own works to contribute—mainly still lifes and landscapes, with a few paintings of everyday figures—rather than conforming to any theme. This was a refreshing break from omnipresent topics of Socialist Realist painting, which had been the mainstay of the previous twenty years.

New Spring Painting Exhibition was held from January 26 to February 24, 1979,22. The main organizers of the exhibition have forgotten the exact dates of the exhibition, and no specific record appears in the issues of Fine Art (Meishu) magazine that I consulted. The dates I quote come from the Beijing Fine Art Academy website. I consulted Yan Zhenduo about these dates, and he says that they sound approximately correct. Scant records reflect confusion: for example, an entry in the chronology of Chinese Artists Association records the venue as Beihai Park rather than Zhongshan Park. in the Waterside Pavilion (Shuixie) at Zhongshan Park, west of the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing. Built in 1421, Zhongshan Park was in 1914 the first royal park to be opened to the public. The pavilion where the exhibition took place was built in 1916, three years prior to May Fourth Movement in 1919, generally considered a nationalist mass movement marking a new stage in China’s democratic revolution. New Spring occupied the rooms in the western part of the pavilion, overlooking a lake full of lotus flowers.

The story of the exhibition is as follows. At the end of 1978, Yan Zhenduo, a Beijing-based oil painter, approached his brother-in-law (who happened to oversee Zhongshan Park) to ask his permission to make an exhibition in the Waterside Pavilion. Historically, this pavilion had been a gathering place for artists and intellectuals to present their works and exchange ideas. To recover this history was therefore no small act only two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Memories of severe punishments for cultural pursuits other than those initiated and dictated by the state were fresh, and haunted everyone in the country. Any self-initiated artistic activity faced uncertain, and potentially dire, consequences.

After the Communist Party established its leadership in China in 1949, art and literature had become increasingly organized, institutionalized, and regulated by the state. Institutional structures maintained the payroll for artists and writers and controlled platforms for publishing, exhibition, and criticism. These structures were, however, entirely paralyzed by the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Programming at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing, and museums throughout the country, ceased completely.

Only in 1972, when a more pragmatic faction within the Communist Party regained a certain amount of power, did exhibitions resume at NAMOC. This was, however, a slow process. Between 1972 and 1975, NAMOC hosted just four exhibitions in total, all themed around political and nationalist propaganda. These were arranged exclusively by the Cultural Team of the State Council, an administrative group in charge of culture under the direction of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife. Jiang was an ultraconservative whose responsibility during the Cultural Revolution was to define the limits of Chinese culture based on a narrow view of revolutionary content and aesthetics.

It was no coincidence that Yen Zhenduo would consider the possibility of initiating an exhibition without state sponsorship at the end of 1978, a time of significant events in the political realm—specifically the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Held December 18 to 22, 1978, this meeting manifested the government’s intention to close the chapter on the Cultural Revolution and move the country toward a new period of reform and openness. Formal institutions of art would respond relatively slowly to these new conditions; it would take another year, for instance, for the Chinese Artists Association to be fully functional. By contrast, when individual artists noticed signals of political relaxation, they moved immediately to take advantage of their window of freedom.

Yan Zhenduo had graduated from the oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in the mid-1960s, right before the Cultural Revolution. In 1968 he was admitted to the Beijing Art Company, where he worked on state commissions such as propaganda paintings, public murals, and landscape paintings for foreign export. It was there that he met Pang Jun, a fellow worker and CAFA graduate, with whom he would collaborate on New Spring. Pang was the son of Pang Xunqin and Qiu Ti, both highly accomplished oil painters educated in France and Japan in the 1920s.

To organize their show, the two artists turned first to earlier generations. Pang Jun invited artist friends of his parents’ age, most of whom, like Wu Guanzhong and Wu Zuoren, had studied art in Europe or Japan before returning to China in the 1930s. Yan Zhenduo approached their professors at CAFA, among them Dong Xiwen, who had studied modern art in Shanghai and in a French school in Vietnam, and who was also extremely knowledgeable about traditional Chinese mural painting. Yan also invited artists such as Luo Gongliu and Lin Gang, who had studied in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and those like Zhuang Yan and Liu Xun, senior painters from the Yan’an period (the early “incubating” phase of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s), who had received their art education in China.

The diverse backgrounds of these artists exemplified the mixture of experiences and styles in the field of oil painting in China at that moment. This variety, and especially the influence of European modernism, had been suppressed, rendered all but invisible, in favor of Socialist Realism for twenty years during the Cultural Revolution. New Spring brought it back into the daylight.

Yan Zhenduo and Pang Jun then turned to their peers, including colleagues in the Beijing Art Company such as Wang Lu and Cao Dali. They also invited younger artists, workers who were not professionally trained in art academies but who studied painting in their spare time by attending courses taught by artists such as Yan and Pang. This alignment within one exhibition of artists of different generations, educational backgrounds, and statures was unique to this project and occasion: the norms of the Cultural Revolution had faded, and the older systems and hierarchies of art had not yet fully recovered their stable structures.

The roster assembled, preparations got under way. The organizers worked with the staff of Zhongshan Park to clean up the Waterside Pavilion, which during the Cultural Revolution had been used for storage. They invited the artists to contribute two or three paintings each, asking specifically for landscapes and still lifes.

Yet this was hardly an apolitical gesture. On the contrary, it was an ingenious and context-specific approach. These were artists who were required to make political propaganda paintings, for a public that only ever saw that kind of work. Paintings of natural scenery—forests in North China, fields of peony blossoms, a lake full of lotus flowers—were made, and seen, only in private, and had been criticized during the Cultural Revolution as decadent and bourgeois. To show these paintings in public was, if not revolutionary, nothing short of fresh air.

Summarizing art activity in Beijing in the February 1979 issue of Fine Art (Meishu) magazine, the journalist Lao Dai specifically mentioned the appearance of impressionist styles in the show.33. Lao Dai, “Today’s Art World in the Capital,” Meishu, no. 2 (February 1979): 48. These styles were particularly charged at the time. Since the late 1950s, impressionism (along with abstraction) had been deemed bourgeois and officially suppressed. Indeed, many of the artists in New Spring had been banned from making art during the Cultural Revolution, and thus some exhibited works had been painted much earlier, in the 1940s and 1950s.

Works were hung “salon style,” grouped by artist, and arranged spontaneously and intuitively by the organizers, including Yan and Pang. Yan relates that they deliberately ignored differences in age or professional stature; there was no hierarchy among the artists, and the placement of paintings was determined by formal aspects alone. The logistics of the show were democratic as well. Artists of all generations took turns guarding the pavilion, and a discussion held a few days after the opening was attended by both artists and cultural officials.

In the meantime, Yan and Pang visited Jiang Feng, a leftist artist and formerly a leading figure in Mao’s project of cultural reform in the art world from 1949 to 1957. Labeled as a “rightist” in 1957, he had been imprisoned for ten years. Subject to political repression, he was still in 1979 waiting at home for new assignments. When Jiang learned about the artists’ plan, he immediately agreed to contribute a preface for the exhibition, and in two days wrote one of the most circulated and widely read exhibition essays in the recent history of Chinese art.

In this succinct statement, Jiang voiced his strong support for the show, pointing out that such self-organization among artists could provide a platform for experimentation in an increased diversity of styles, forms, and themes. He suggested as well that the potential of selling works through such organizations was welcome. Above all, though, Jiang asserted that Chinese citizens were entitled by law to the “right to form organizations,” as expressly stipulated in China’s constitution. Even though it would be nearly another year before Jiang was named president of CAFA and chair of the Chinese Artists Association (which happened on November 10, 1979), the signal he sent out in this preface inspired a wave of new artists’ organizations throughout the country. The official records of the Chinese Artists Association show that 166 artists’ collectives registered in the wake of New Spring.

After New Spring, many of the forty-odd featured artists formed a group called Beijing Oil Painting Society, which would organize three more exhibitions: one in Beihai Park in Beijing in 1979, and two more at the National Museum of Art in 1980 and 1981. These subsequently traveled to eight cities outside of Beijing. In 1982, the Chinese government revised the constitution to revoke the right of self-organization and gathering, ending this dynamic moment. Gradually, many artists were absorbed (or reabsorbed) into the official structures of art.

The significance of New Spring has been overlooked in the historical narrative of Chinese contemporary art, despite its notable rupture from the state-supported system. Historians discuss other nonofficial exhibitions instead, such as the Stars Group outdoor exhibition, or the first No Name Art Group exhibition, both also held in Beijing in 1979. These shows have essentially taken the place of the earlier exhibition in the historical record. This might be explained by the fact that Chinese contemporary art has drawn legitimacy from its association with antigovernment protest. The later shows took stances more explicitly antagonistic to the state, while many of the artists involved with New Spring found places in cultural institutions of the post-1982 order.

Nevertheless, as the main organizers of New Spring are now in their eighties and all the senior artists in the exhibition have passed away, I feel a great urgency to reconstruct this fascinating show that was seen by thousands, but is largely forgotten. As I was writing this, I asked Zhang Qiang to recall his visit to the exhibition. Despite the passage of nearly forty years, his memory of New Spring was so vivid that it read as if he had visited it yesterday. He wrote:

It was still winter but the exhibition was titled New Spring—to correspond to the new-year season in the lunar calendar, but also to indicate the passing of a cold season in the political climate. There was a certain naïveté then. The natural weather was still cold, especially in the Waterside Pavilion, in the southwestern corner of Zhongshan Park. As its name reveals, it was surrounded by the modest lake in the park. I was wearing my winter outfit, a padded jacket. Many were wrapped up in scarves and wool or tweed hats. How to put it? Obviously I was excited. There hadn’t been such an exhibition before: no official censorship, no involvement by the Chinese Artists Association that represented the government. It was the first time [since 1949].44. WeChat message from Zhang Qiang, April 12, 2017.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a curator, art critic and writer who lives and works in Beijing. She is on the editorial board of The Exhibitionist.