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This essay was written in 1997 by Cao Zhengfeng, the former deputy head of the Chinese National Art Gallery, and published in "Chinese Huxian Farmer Paintings". The author made his first contacts with farmers paintings in 1973, three years before the death of chairman Mao Zedong, and when the Cultural Revolution was still dominating the political and social life in China. The article covers the history of farmers paintings in China, and poignantly characterizes its ups and downs and its position as a recognized group of painters.
I can remember that in the autumn of 1973, twenty-four years ago, I led a group of six instructors of art training classes from the army to Huxian. We paid a special visit to obtain some experience from the farmers who were painters there, and to learn from them.
As soon as the bus entered the area near Huxian, scenes of the golden autumn came into our view. One of the instructors pointed out of the window and shouted:
"Look, isn't that 'Picking up the Fresh Cotton', painted by Li Fenglan?"
The others looked out as they heard his voice. The scenes were so beautiful that we couldn't take them all in along our way. It seemed that Huxian farmers' paintings were everywhere, and everywhere there were farmers' paintings.
Since it was just at the time of the golden autumn, everywhere in Huxian, the home of the farmer's paintings, it seemed there was flowing gold and trickling silver. The painters were not only the creators of "material civilization" but also the creators of "ethical civilization". In their spare time, after strenuous work, they painted beautiful pictures of their home towns with paint brushes as well as with their own emotions. They revealed the beauty, for the first time, that "men of letters and paintings " dared not approach in the past. They were wonderful creations. We wanted to learn from them.
We saw the woman painter Li Fenglan's new work, "Spring Hoeing". The composition was so tranquil that it seemed in the early morning mist that the clear rustling hoeing sounds, accompanied by the melodious songs of the swallows, were like warm and fragrant winds which flew into people's ears.
In the painting "Digging a Well" by Fan Zgihua ,the layers of earth in the well being dug were formed into yellow circles, and people seemed to be digging vigorously on every layer when viewed vertically. Maybe the painter was one of them. How else could he have painted it so vividly. The composition was novel, the color strong. It depicted the prominent local features of the Great Northwest and the local people's energetic dispositions. We also saw, "The Fish Pond of the Commune", "A bumper Harvest of Hot Peppers", and "The Chicken Farm of the Brigade" among others.
We could see similar scenes and activities everywhere but we did not realize they could be treated as subjects for paintings. But the farmers painted them - and painted them beautifully. This made us feel that it was not a question of selecting appropriate subjects for paintings, or the painting techniques and abilities, but rather the painters; emotions toward life.
We interviewed and visited Du Zhilian, Liu Zhigui, Liu Zhide and Li Fenglan, and others, all of them farmers who painted. The impressions they left on us were so deep that they remain with us today, still fresh in our minds.
At the time of our visit, Liu Zhide held the post as a main leader of the brigade, so he was a very busy man. All of the paintings were created during the noon break or at night. The themes of the paintings helped to publicize the policies and tasks of the brigade. When he later went to work in the town, and became the director of the Farmers Painting Exhibition Hall, he retained the characteristics of the working people.
Li Fenglan, at that time, was the director of a committee of women (Women's Representative Committee) established to represent the concerns of women in the brigade (village or villages). She was the leader of the cotton planting group as well. At home she had to look after three aged parents and four young children. It was not easy for her to create paintings under such difficult conditions. Sometimes she had to make sketches on the ground while she was tending the kitchen fire. When she forgot some details, she would watch closely the work in the fields and keep her observations carefully in her mind. When she returned home she would make corrections again and again until she felt satisfied.
Most of the older generation of the farmers who painted in Huxian County grew up under circumstances similar to those of Liu Zhide and Li Fenglan. They were not concerned about earning money from their paintings or their personal gains and losses, but painted for people in their home towns. Without their contributions and sacrifices, the rest of the world would not know about the life in Huxian.
In today's society, with the emphasis on reform and opening China to the rest of the world, the farmers' paintings have become important cultural commodities in the marketplace. Great changes have taken place in the Huxian countryside and the living standards of the farmers. Also great changes have taken place in the group (troop) of farmers who paint. The veteran painters' sentiments towards art must be passed down from one generation to the next, as family heirlooms. Equally important is the continuing development of the art.
For forty years, Huxian's farmers' paintings have been very prominent in China. As a painting group, they have the longest continuous history on the mainland of China. Although in 1958, the period of China's Great Leap Forward, farmers in Pixian, in northern Jiangsu Province, emerged as painters of folk subjects, their efforts were not long-lasting. They shocked audiences at home and abroad with their romantic, free styles, reflecting changes in their ways of thinking.
Later, a "National Movement in Poetry and Painting" occurred and imitations of the Pixian farmers' paintings appeared in many places in China. Among the places where these were widely seen were: Huxian (Shanxi Province) and Sulu County (Hebei province). When the feverish activities of the Great Leap Forward diminished, many groups of painters disbanded, one after another, farmers' paintings almost disappeared from sight, with the exception of those in Huxian.
The political and civic leaders in Huxian continually supported the painters. The group became stronger. In 1973, five hundred people were involved in the painting group. Many were inspired by their art to play important roles in the activities of the county.
When anything new occurs, difficulties and hardships may arise. The farmers' paintings are no exception. Their works reflect changing political situations in China. Through their themes, compositions and colors were affected by political forces on the "left". The majority of their paintings depict the daily works and living activities of the farmers. Therefore, I propose that the paintings created after the "Cultural Revolution" should be affirmed as worthwhile contributions in the modern history of folk arts in our country.
Forty years ago few Huxian farmers could even hold paint brushes. Through classes and work shops, some lasting as long as ten days, they were educated by professionals. Once they had learned preliminary techniques, they progressed at an astonishing rate. Using working people's emotions, thinking modes, aesthetics, interests, and observations of things around them, they selected painting materials and created paintings that depicted the features of the times. They demonstrated that they understood the "climate" of rural life that permeates the characteristics of folk arts everywhere. They broke through, to some extent, the "art regulations" of the professionals.
At that time (early 1970's), the style of the paintings tended to be realistic and to portray life directly. Even so, they depicted energetic, vibrant work scenes, silvery cotton fields, picturesque and poetic farm fields and farmhouses. Painting included flocks of chickens, ducks and other animals, which made people feel intimate, innocent, unaffected, simple and childish. The paintings originated in real life, but were more idealistic and beautiful than real life. Hence, the farmers' paintings created a new style and set an example for other painting groups in China.
Due to the restrictions of the times, many Huxian painters did not realize that folk arts should be rooted in the festile soil of the profound national folk culture. During the "Cultural Revolution" the national folk arts were regarded as part of a group of old traditions that were to be eliminated and swept away from the culture. People did not dare to inherit or borrow anything from the older folk art traditions, so they remained confined to the political influences around them and to approved subjects for their paintings. Consequently their views were narrow and their forms and styles dull. These were the situations twenty years ago.
When the "Cultural Revolution" came to an end, there was a folk art revival throughout the country. The newly rising Jinshan farmers' painters near Shanghai learned from the Huxian farmers' painters first and then built on this foundation new styles of their own in the traditional folk arts. They opened up new areas in farmers' paintings and, in return, widened the view of the Huxian group.
Huxian painters learned from the newly rising painting groups elsewhere, diligently internalized these experiences, and absorbed fresh aesthetic perspectives. After the Huxian painters experienced new insight and different view of reality, they searched for their own directions. They moved ahead to develop their own styles and reached a high level of folk art painting. Many Chinese people expressed appreciation and gratification for their efforts.
In the early eighties, I was transferred from the army to the Chinese National Art Galley. I came to Huxian for the second time in order to organize Shanxi folk art exhibits in Beijing. At that time, the painters were in a period of exploring new ideas and techniques of painting. Although some were puzzled about what direction their works should take, many developed their skills very well.
Several years later, when I entered the splendid "Huxian Farmers' Paintings Exhibition Hall", I was astonished to see paintings which were unique and unusual, while retaining strong influences from their surroundings. I praised them:
"Huxian farmers' paintings have indeed changed. They are more beautiful."
I found, at that time, that many paintings had absorbed influences from the other popular and traditional folk arts, and were better developed, more substantial, more imaginative, more creative and more gorgeous.
Because of my position with the art gallery, I was fortunate to be able to attend many folk art exhibits, evaluate the works of different places. I felt strongly that the Huxian farmers' paintings were distinctive and had their own traits and characteristics when compared to those of other groups of painters in China. Though painters in different groups were similar to each other in the artistic materials that they selected and the techniques they used, the Huxian painters, with their solid foundation in the fundamentals of painting, were more life-like, simple, and innocent. They included strong local characteristics of the Northwest and retained the richness of the rural life.
At this time many groups of folk painters tried to strive for different and unusual shapers, exaggerated forms, wildness, strangeness and novelty. They lost some of the major characteristics of folk arts. They even used western realistic art styles, which greatly changed the farmers' paintings. However some of the painters in Huxian did not seek after strange and fantastic effects, but emphasized the internal values of their paintings. They stuck to their own directions therefore, some of the paintings maintained realistic and direct painting styles and became more mature than before.
Although the Huxian farmers' painting group has developed over a period of forty years, in the past twenty years, the changing policies regarding reform and increasing openness to other countries in the world, have provided them with new opportunities for development. Now the painting group has more than 2000 painters, including 200 "backbones", those painters who have painted for many years and are acknowledge widely as excellent. Among them more than one hundred are members of artists associations above the provincial level. Some of them are evaluated as provincial level artists and some of them are graded as "level one", "level two", "level three" at the county level.
In the past twenty years the number of paintings that have received awards, been collected by art galleries and museums (both at home and abroad), and purchased by international visitors, has increased greatly. Their works have been exhibited in more than sixty countries. Fifteen painters have been invited as cultural envoys to visit and provide demonstrations and lectures in foreign countries.
Among more than ten painting groups in our country, Huxian is outstanding. The creation of Huxian folk arts, including paintings by the farmers, still has a long way to go. The artists should internalize experiences continually, observe the strengths of other painters' groups, learn from them and explore their way forward. They should be practical, try to meet the needs of the tourist market, and apart from appreciating the monetary value of the paintings, should try to satisfy the requirements of people at home and abroad for aesthetic standards. Gradually they should grow mature. The farmers' paintings, like wine, should be mellow, refreshing, sweet, fragrant and delicious.
Cao Zhengfeng (former deputy head of the Chinese National Art Gallery)
(edited by artelino, copyright Cao Zhengfeng)
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