Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 22, 2019
Shelley Drake Hawks The Art of Resistance: Painting by Candlelight in Mao's China Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. 304 pp.; 96 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780295741956)

Shelley Drake Hawks’s The Art of Resistance: Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China is a valuable contribution to Chinese art history and China studies that illuminates the plight of artists during the Cultural Revolution (1966­­–76). Hawks argues that in spite of overwhelming oppression, Chinese artists endured the Cultural Revolution by visualizing their feelings of disillusionment and dissent through art. The expression “painting by candlelight” (ix) refers to the unsanctioned, clandestine, and sometimes dangerous means artists took to create art—painting in secret, encoding works with subversive meaning, or writing Maoist poetry as a formalist rather than political pursuit.

Lavishly illustrated and complemented with online videos that feature interviews with surviving family members of the artists who are the book’s focus, the volume is the anchor of a multimedia package that contributes to the rapidly growing field of modern Chinese art history. Like Timothy Cheek’s Propaganda and Culture in Mao’s China: Deng Tuo and the Intelligentsia (1997), Hawks tells the story of the Maoist era through individual “cultural workers,” particularly artists, because “among the most persecuted were China’s painters” (3). The introduction provides a swift overview of the Cultural Revolution that purposefully sacrifices historical details to concentrate on how the political catastrophe impacted artists. This focus on the artists is a strength of the book, which resists the urge to allow broader political turmoil to overshadow individual stories. Most of the chapters are organized around a pattern of biographical introduction, persecution, and redemption. By the end, we gain an appreciation for the courage of these artists, and presumably others like them, who stood up to the abuses of the Cultural Revolution. Hawks convincingly portrays these Maoist-era artists as inheritors of the ethical scholar-officials in Chinese history who, in times of trouble, had the moral fortitude to object to the folly of the emperors they served. As Hawks writes, “Within this callously conceived political theater, the senior-generation ink painters found themselves cast in the role of the old-style Confucian intellectual” (9).

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which comprises six chapters that each focus on a single artist, while the last three chapters provide a fuller treatment of a single artist, Shi Lu (1919–1982). The first two chapters, on the little-studied genre of cartoons (manhua), are a welcome contribution to Chinese art history. Chapter 1 draws an extended analogy between the tragic fate of Ding Cong (1916–2009) and the hapless Ah Q, a fictional character created by the writer and cultural critic Lu Xun (1881–1926). Chapter 2 looks at Feng Zikai (1898–1975), a traditionalist whose poetic sensibilities gave form to the manhua genre but also courted trouble for the artist. Guileless in the arena of politics, Feng became a frequent target of political persecution whose only salvation was his Buddhist faith.

The second section examines academy painters whose privileged positions were upended by unjust persecution. The coverage of Li Keran (1907–1989) in chapter 3 shows the futility of an artist’s attempt to placate political demands by painting red landscapes and writing Maoist poetry. Perhaps the personality that shines most brightly through the pages is Li Kuchan (1898–1983) in chapter 4. A painter of bird-and-flower subjects in a gestural style, Li was also a martial artist who had the audacity to write directly to Mao Zedong (1893–1976), a former classmate, in seeking the reinstatement of his lost status as a professor in the Central Academy of Fine Arts. His brazen personality seems to have carried him through his persecutions. Chapter 5 examines Huang Yongyu (b. 1924), creator of the much-discussed Winking Owl, condemned by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing (1914–1991) as the epitome of the so-called “black paintings.” Hawks shows that while the painting was probably more playful than political, Huang’s irreverent personality emboldened him to commit other “subversive” acts, like secretly distributing encoded paintings to friends. Chapter 6 surveys the tragic life of the most senior artist of the group, Pan Tianshou (1897–1971), whose venerable status as president of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou was stripped from him and only restored posthumously. Despite his contributions as an artist and educator, Pan lived the last years of his life imprisoned in a “cowshed,” as many were, and died in obscurity. His last painting, done on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, features a plum tree whose dark, ink-laden branches carry an ominous warning. Hawks effectively demonstrates that Pan inherited the tradition of scholars using painting and poetry as vehicles of expression during times of unjust “inquisitions.”

The final section of the book is devoted to the Xi’an-based Shi Lu, a compelling artist known for his independent, iconoclastic spirit. These chapters highlight the ironic fate of this artist, who initially supported the Communist movement in the 1940s and took pride in his physical resemblance to Mao but suffered immensely during the Cultural Revolution as a result of his stubborn refusal to submit to the political rigidity of the time. Hawks’s examination of the artist’s schizophrenia through his writings and paintings, as well as eyewitness accounts of his behavior, render a nuanced treatment of the oft-repeated epitaph that Shi Lu was the “Chinese van Gogh.”

The biographical structure of the book allows the author to roundly flesh out the seven artists, all artistically important in their own right and well-chosen for the narrative. Given the ubiquity of artists who suffered similar fates in Maoist China, however, one wonders about the implied exceptionalism of these artists. Hawks explains that “the artists hardest hit by the Cultural Revolution were the stubbornly creative ones" (11), and "What sets these seven apart is that they remained artists in spite of the terror” (4). However, such an interpretation may place too much emphasis on the degree to which such distinctions between individuals can be made, especially in a context in which moral compasses were led astray. As a related point, while the book clearly demonstrates the irony of political oppression’s inverse effect of inspiring rather than abating artistic expression, one wonders about the fluidity of individual roles within the socialist state, roles that could change at a moment’s notice from one of empowerment to disenfranchisement. Beyond the triumph of the artistic will to survive, what do the whims of Maoist politics and the plight of the featured ink painters tell us about power in the Chinese socialist state?

Ultimately, Hawks does not seek to rewrite the history of the Cultural Revolution, as her analysis of artists aligns with our general understanding of the relentless attacks on the intellectual class. What The Art of Resistance offers instead are numerous examples of artists who were senselessly targeted and persecuted. A strategy that Hawks employs that may be different from earlier scholars is her attempt to identify evidence of dissent that may have “justified” the persecution of the artists. For example, Hawks writes, “The apparently ludicrous and shrill accusation that a genuine Communist believer like Shi Lu was actually a ‘reactionary academic authority’ had some basis” (10). In doing so, Hawks restores agency to artists that history has regarded as “cogs” in the Communist machine. Far from being so, these artists were the squeaky wheels in a system that tried to grease them and, after failing to do so, attempted to extract them altogether.

The stories of irrepressible spirit that Hawks conveys in this book show that much still needs to be understood about the Cultural Revolution as a component of Chinese intellectual history. The book raises broader questions about the continuity between premodern and modern Chinese art, and the relationship between the individual and the state. With the exception of a few visual comparisons to Western art, The Art of Resistance refrains from engaging in more expansive art historical discourses that would give some context to how artists endured not only the upheavals of twentieth-century China but also the global turmoil of the postwar period. For example, the formal similarities between Shi Lu’s iconic portrait of Mao and Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog invite questions about the circulation of foreign visual models in Maoist China.

Hawks’s prose is lucid and accessible to a broad audience, including undergraduates, for whom themes of censorship and intellectual freedom will resonate. The Art of Resistance also offers graduate students and specialists new material, such as an interesting collection of Red Guards pamphlets that caricaturize various featured artists. Further, Hawks admirably locates institutional sources that offer insight into the political games encouraged by the Cultural Revolution. Interviews also serve as an important tool for research on a period that left behind scant documentation; as Hawks notes, in the absence of more complete and accessible archives of the Cultural Revolution, ephemera, oral histories, and surviving works of art “can emerge to fill the void of official silences” (12). Additional features of the book include a chronology that interweaves major political events and personal milestones of the seven artists, as well as a glossary of terms. This handsome volume contributes to and extends existing conversations on an important era in modern Chinese art history and China studies.

Yang Wang
Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Colorado Denver