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Historical value of Chinese realism art since the 20th century

Author  :  WANG HONGBIN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-08-19

Four things combined to pave the way for realism art’s popularity in contemporary China: traditional Chinese realistic painting techniques; influence by Soviet Russian Art; the New Culture Movement in the 1910s; and Marxism.

A retrospective

The creative methods and ideas of “unifying the reality of life and the reality of art” have long been observed in the Chinese art tradition. As legalist Han Fei (c.280–233 BCE) put it in Han Feizi, it is actually easier to draw ghosts and monsters than to draw horses and dogs. Another example is a tale which took place in the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280) about painter Cao Buxing, who accidentally let fall a drop of ink onto an unfinished painting, and later revised the ink spot into a fly so real that when the painting was presented to the king, the king tried to drive away the painted fly.

In ancient Chinese art, the ideas of “learning from nature,” “facilitating spiritual resonance through depicting the form,” and “pursuing realism” conveyed the philosophy and principles of realism. However, it was not until the 20th century when realism fully took shape in China as a concept, methodology, and attitude in art.

In 1915, revolutionary socialist Chen Duxiu (1879–1942) published an article entitled “The Direction of Today’s Education” in New Youth, in which he pointed out that we need to embrace what is real over imaginary things. He believed it was the same in art and literature, meaning that realism, naturalism, and all mental activities are rooted in real life. Chen advocated that realism should be the number one principle for Chinese national education. In fact, realism was one of his key tools to promote science, when he introduced the abstract concept of “Mr. Science.”

In his speech entitled “Methods for Improving Chinese Paintings,” Xu Beihong (1895–1953) proposed reforming traditional Chinese freehand brushwork by adopting the standards of Western realist oil paintings. Soon afterwards, Xu went to France to learn sketch and classical oil painting.

These propositions and practices in the early 20th century set the stage for realism as an art genre to formalize within China.

As Marxism was disseminated in China in the 1930s, Chinese left-wing art theorists had started to concentrate on the socialist realism developed in the Soviet Union. Literary theorist Zhou Yang (1908–1989) published an article titled “Socialist Realism and Revolutionary Romanticism” in 1933, which systematically introduced the realism of the Soviet Union and called on China to adapt the style to its art works. The article explained how art could truthfully reflect real life, how the revolution integrated realism with romanticism, and how to depict a heroic figure (among other topics).

At the time, art critic Feng Xuefeng also published the Scientific Art Theories Series as the chief editor to further introduce revolutionary realism. In 1942, in the “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art,” Comrade Mao Zedong said that art and literature must depict people’s lives and serve the workers, peasants, and soldiers. His remarks set the direction for China’s realistic art.

In the 50s, Soviet artist Konstantin Maksimov (1914–1994) taught oil painting in a training program at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He passed on his theory and techniques of realistic oil painting to the promising art students, who later became Chinese realist painters.

Historical value

Realism added to traditional Chinese art theories, which comprised the theoretical quintessence of thousands of years of art creation. This included the integration of form and spirit, likeness and reality, truth and principles, artistic mood and artistic conception, elegance and popularity, brush and ink, and spirit resonance. These theories shaped the way Chinese people appreciate beauty, and as realism began to infiltrate into China’s art community, so did everything associated with it, such as its artistic norms, creation methods, world outlook, and tendentiousness.

Zhou came up with his own version of realism’s artistic typicality in “Thoughts on Realism” in 1936, when he wrote that while a typical character embodied the characteristics of a certain social group against a certain time background, he/she should also have something unique to him/herself.

The art genre also influenced the basic model of art criticism in China. Critics of traditional Chinese calligraphy and paintings usually evaluated both an art work and its creator, whose temperaments, moral quality, background, and life experience were all considered. However, since realism made its way into China, China has adopted the Marxist aesthetics as its predominant method and attitude for art appreciation and creation. It means to assess an art piece from the perspectives of dialectical materialism and historical materialism, while looking at how it addresses the relationship between art and life, tendencies and truthfulness, content and form, art and politics, etc.

Realism’s entrance into China answered the call of the times when China needed to carry out revolution, nation-building, and art development. While Chinese imperial art reflected imperial families’ taste for beauty, and literati paintings expressed scholars’ ambition, high spirit, and passion for romantic charm and artistic conception, the fine arts in contemporary China was shaken by Western culture. A revolution started in the art world when artists Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian (1900–1991), Liu Haisu (1896–1994), Gao Jianfu (1879–1951), and the like adapted Western realism to Chinese canvases.

As China’s social crisis deepened and its social movement transitioned from cultural enlightenment to political revolution, China’s art exploration also shifted its focus from style and form to artistic social values. This means it was no longer a revolution of art, but a process of creating art for the revolution. Realism, as the core principle for revolutionary art, entered China when it was most needed. Artists like Gu Yuan (1919–1996) and Hu Yichuan (1910–2000) created a large number of woodcut pictures to depict the new look in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province[the city hosted the then headquarters of the CPC and the center of the Communist revolution from 1935 to 1948], and the Liberated Area. The vivid woodcut art works demonstrated how the army and the people worked alongside each other to fight for national liberation, as well as class struggle, democratic life, and a new way of labor production.

Realism is an inclusive genre that allows artists to be creative in their methods. Since the reform and opening up, artists have begun to push the boundary of realism. Jin Shangyi (b. 1934) absorbed Western classical painting techniques and created portraits such as Tajik Bride and Fruit, bringing the creation of Chinese portrait oil painting to a new height. Luo Zhongli (b. 1948) applied photorealism to his painting Father. In Red Candle, Wen Lipeng (b. 1931) borrowed from expressionism and symbolism. In the Tibetan Series, Chen Danqing (b. 1953) drew inspiration from naturalism. Qian Shaowu (1928–2021) adopted certain elements of cubism in his Li Dazhao Memorial Statue. Deeply rooted in real life, realism has absorbed romanticism, expressionism, and symbolism as it grows in China’s soil. There is no wonder why it continues to thrive to this day.

In the new era

Traditional Chinese art critics liked to grade art works based on four criteria: elegance, verve, subtlety and proficiency, as well as on how the brush and ink were utilized, and whether or not the painting displayed culture while combining form and spirit. However, with more painting types and categories such as oil painting, watercolor, and installation art, along with changes in schools of art and style, traditional evaluation methods no longer fit the changing landscape. In light of market economy, art criticism standards and guidelines are a little confusing. Coming to the new era, we need to evaluate realistic artworks from the perspective of history, the people, and aesthetics so as to build a healthy cultural ecology and a better environment for art criticism.

Rooted in the tradition of realism, concentration on reality and the responsibility of art need to be strengthened. To preserve the authenticity of realism means to depict life by reproducing typical characters in a certain environment. It shows how an artist understands the essence of life. When we say realism pursues the good, we mean art needs to show respect for lives, moral ideal and pursuit of happiness, and demonstrate morality. Artists need to take root in people’s lives and social activities, and care for the destiny of the people and even mankind through deep and comprehensive observation of life and human nature.

We need to stick to realism and correct the tendency towards nihilism and sensationalism in current artwork. Since the reform and opening up, postmodern art has been on the rise with its remarkable feature of the uncertainty of meaning. Postmodern art no longer has fixed rules and standards. Everything is changing, and the meaning of any work of art is uncertain. The deconstruction of traditional art by postmodernism dispels and weakens social and cognitive functions of art. Some artists give up their aesthetics and ideas in artwork due to consumerism and postmodernism. They blindly cater to the market, create hype, pander to vulgar tastes, and lack humanity, responsibility, and mission in their art.

In the new era, artists need to stick to a socially responsible realism that can chase lofty dreams while pursuing moral values. It can focus on reality and deal with the relationship between art and life. Only in doing so can artists create more masterpieces that are both welcomed by the people and celebrated in history so as to usher in a golden age of artwork.


Wang Hongbin is from the School of Arts at the Hunan University of Science and Technology.

Editor: Yu Hui

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