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At the occasion of our first auction of farmers' paintings from the County of Huxian in Shaanxi province in China in June 2005, this article is meant to give you an introduction and overview mixed with some practical tips about these vibrant and refreshing works of art.
Chinese farmers' paintings have their origins in the 1950s, when the communist party encouraged rural communities as well as the army to engage in art.
"People need art, and art needs more people."
It was this new understanding of art being exerted by common people, instead of bourgeois, academic professionals, that stood at the cradle of Chinese farmers' paintings. Some communes picked it up, in the beginning for recreational purposes, or as a well-meant means of propaganda, or to express their dreams of a better life. The farmers' vision of the Communist paradise was for them straight-forward and simple. Happiness were good crops, a stable full of healthy cattle, a nice home, healthy children, good and sufficient meals, electricity, and every now and then a bit of fun at local festivities.
There are even some older roots of Chinese folk art, like paper cuts or mural paintings and the Chinese New Years prints. Their influence can be recognized until our days.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, folk art was much subject to politics. Many folk art artists and artisans like those who produced the Chinese New Year prints, were more seen as part of the old 'evils' that had to be eradicated. Others like the painting peasants from Huxian were seen as role models. Stefan R. Landsberger has written an interesting article titled Huxian Peasant Painters, and illustrated with some good examples of the interrelation of farmers paintings and the genre of the Chinese propaganda poster during the Cultural Revolution. Anyway, the farmers' paintings movements continued through the Cultural Revolution and the new era of reforms. And with the political and economic reforms at the beginning of the 1980s, the movement took a new upswing with international exhibitions and with Western tourists coming to China in large numbers.
The best known rural art community is today in the county of Huxian in Shaanxi province. Other well-known centers are in Jinshan County near Shanghai and in the county of Lunan Yi in the Autonomous Yunnan Province. Today, there are more than 40 government recognized farmers painters communities, organized in different artists associations on county, provincial and national level. The Chinese state has promoted these activities and supports them with funds and by providing art training.
The typical Chinese farmers' painting is hand-painted with gouache watercolors on paper. The selection that we saw was signed and titled, and had red artist's seals.
The subjects are taken from the experience of the daily life in rural communities. They show trivial activities like coming home from a market or eating dinner, or they display events like a marriage or a spring festival procession. For Westerners not all the scenes that are depicted are immediately understandable without either having a deep knowledge of habits and social life in China, or getting a good description from someone. The painting Newly Married by Pan Xiaoling is such an example. What we considered at first to be an appalling scene in which the bridegroom threatens his bride with a knife pointing to her head, turned out to be the depiction of an old Chinese marriage tradition: The "knife" is in reality a special stick with which the bridegroom removes the veil of his newly married wife to "see her beautiful face for the first time".
The colors of Chinese farmers' paintings are rather brilliant and vibrant. The whole compositions look like typical naive art. But be careful with your judgment. Among the set of 40 paintings that we received, we saw many that in our view have carefully elaborated compositions that follow rules of the kind you would learn at an art academy. And indeed, most of today's core artists underwent some professional art training.
Over the last two years we sold hundreds of modern Chinese prints - mostly woodblock prints - by leading Chinese professional artists. We cannot help, but in our view there are interrelations between the works of these professional artists and the works of folk art. For instance the painting series 'Eight Strange Things of Shaanxi' reminds us of some print works from the Yunan Art School.
Some of the farmers' paintings use the keyline technique as you may know it from ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints. The whole design is drawn with strong black outlines, and then the areas are filled with colors. Many of the Chinese propaganda poster designs use the same technique. In the paintings by Cao Quantang, like for instance Good Harvest is in Sight, you can see this technique very well.
In some of Pan Xiaoling's works like for instance A history of Red Earth, one can see the use of gradations as a more refined technique.
We mention these examples to underline our opinion that these art works, which look at first sight naive and make you smile, should by no means be underestimated.
All artists represented in the first artelino auction of Chinese farmers' paintings come from Huxian. Pan Xiaoling and Cao Quantang are the major artists with together 33 paintings, while Wang Nailiang contributed two and Zhang Qingyi one.
Pan Xiaoling is a female painter, and one of the best known of the Huxian farmers' community - the painting farmers' celebrity so to say. She is the woman of the "firsts". In order to promote and sell her paintings better, she was the first in the village to install a telephone, the first to publish an album with her paintings in 1993, and the first to buy a computer to sell her paintings on the internet. Regarding her paintings, she is in our view either a natural genius or she acquired some of her astonishing skills by systematic art training. Probably it is a mixture of both.
Pan Xiaoling's art paintings have been shown widely outside of China. And on national level she is very well-known.
Cao Quan-tang was born in Qindu Town in Huxian county in 1957. He started to paint at the age of fifteen. Quantang was elected as artist group leader of Qinshan village and head of the cultural center in Qindu town. Currently he is the director of the Huxian Peasant Painting Association, and a member of the Shanxi Artist Association. His art works have been presented in provincial and national art exhibitions in China, but also abroad. Several of his works are in Chinese museums.
Wang Nailiang was born in Donghan village, near Ganting town, in Huxian County of Shaanxi Province in 1963. He is a member of the Chinese Peasantry Painting and Calligraphy Seminar as well as director of the Shanxi Peasantry Painting Association and a first-class painter of Hu County Peasantry Art Gallery.
Zhang Qingyi, belongs to the Han nationality and was born in Yuxia Town, in Huxian County in 1954. He is a member of China's Farmer Calligraphers and Painters Research Association, Shanxi Province Artists Association, a trustee of Shanxi Farmers' Painting Association, and a state-graded artist. More than a hundred of his paintings have been shown in national Chinese exhibitions at county, province and national level.�
Prices of Chinese farmers' paintings are cheap. You can find them on the internet for roughly 50 to 150 USD. The paper on which they are painted, is rather simple. Imagine it more like a better wrapping paper. But this has no negative influence on the artistic quality. Due to the use of the gouache watercolors, the paper is often wavy. But that will flatten out over time.
These paintings are unique and hand-painted works of arts. But it does not mean that there exists only one copy. The more popular designs are certainly made more than once. How many might there be? We have no idea. But we think it is rather irrelevant. Collectors pay thousands of dollars for a print impression - some of them not even limited editions. And the Chinese propaganda posters have been printed virtually in billions and are today nevertheless a rare collectors' item with prices of USD 100 for an original poster in the low price section.
Chinese farmers' paintings have been exhibited all over the world in renowned art museums of such countries like the U.S.A., France, Italy, Canada, Japan, Singapore or Australia. In 2002, Huxian county hosted an international farmers' paintings exhibition with works from China, but also from other countries. Chinese farmers' paintings are accepted as serious art - no doubt about it.
Under commercial aspects the tourist market is probably more important than the demand from collectors. It remains to be seen what kind of influence the demand by tourists for cheap souvenirs will have. We have the impression that currently the firm embedding of the painting communities in the organizational framework of state-controlled artists associations guarantees a certain quality standard. Other examples of popular folk art movements in the world, like for instance Hait paintings and sculptures, or Tibetan thanka paintings, have proved that tourist demand does more likely split art 'production' into a cheap tourist and an upper echelon collectors and connoisseur art market.
Chinese farmers' paintings are serious and recognized art. But they should also be seen from a somewhat hilarious perspective. We therefore want to conclude this little article with a charming explanation of the painting Happy whole Family by Wang Nailiang born 1963. The following explanation came from China - thanks Jin Jiao!
"The scene describes the celebration of spring festival with the twelve animals - called Shengxiao - of the Chinese zodiac. They are rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. And this is how according to the Chinese legend the selection and order of these twelve animals was established."
"Long long ago, the order of animals is the result of squabble that followed Emperor Xuanyuan's summoning them to be his imperial bodyguards. The rat tricked the cat out of going, and ever since they have been enemies. The rat also managed to drive the elephant away by climbing into his trunk. Of the other animals, the ox took the lead, but the rat jumped onto its back, hitching a ride into first place. The pig, busy complaining about this, came last. Since the tiger and dragon refused to accept the result, the Emperor compensated them with the titles "King of the Mountain" and "King of the Ocean", and placed them immediately after the rat and ox. But the rabbit would not accept this either, so raced and won against the dragon for fourth place. The dissatisfied dog bit the rabbit, and was punished with penultimate place. The other animals filled the other positions in the order in which they arrived."
Have fun with Chinese farmers' paintings!
Dieter and Yorie
(in June 2005)
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Works by emerging Chinese artists in BUYDIRECT.