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Modern art in Shanghai during the 1990s

Author: Xia Wei 1999

My thesis studies modern art in Shanghai during the 1990s, concentrating on the work of four of the more original and well-known artists, Yu Youhan, Ding Yi, Shi Yong, and Zhou Tiehai. In Chapter One, I briefly discuss the historical role that Shanghai played in the transplantation of Western-style oil painting to China in the later 19th-early 20th centuries, the first great Shanghai age of the 1920s and 1930s, the isolated and sterile period that followed after World War II, and the reopening of Shanghai to modern Western art practice during the late 1970s and 1980s . During the second of these periods, Shanghai's "Golden Age," I show that the debate between artists and critics who favored art for social purposes and those who advocated art for art's sake had already begun. Chapter Two concentrates on the oil paintings of Yu Youhan and Ding Yi. Although Yu was one of the first creators of abstract, non-representational art in China, he is more famous for his later American Pop-art-influenced paintings incorporating iconography from the Cultural Revolution period, especially the image of Mao Zedong. Unlike the other artists I study, Yu was strongly influenced by Maoist ideology and has always maintained that art should be made for and reflect the lives of the Chinese people. On the other hand, his student Ding Yi, best known for his series of paintings based on the sign +, has created pure non-representational canvases that he hopes will be universal in their appeal and without political or cultural references. Chapter Three treats Shi Yong and Zhou Tiehai, two multimedia artists. Shi began as an oil painter influenced by Chirico but soon moved onto installation art characterized by a seemingly Minimalist vocabulary and an emphasis on scientific accuracy. In recent years he has worked in a number of media, including so-called "apartment art," performance, and computer technology. His latest works have been characterized by an ironic examination of the relationship between the West as the center of modern art and Chinese artists on the periphery. Zhou Tiehai, who started out as a painter of works superficially resembling the big character posters of the Cultural Revolution, has moved on to creations incorporating painting, video, performance, sound, and photography. He, too is interested in the relationship between China and the center and particularly in the tension between the artist's "spiritual" life and the commerce of art. In Chapter Four, I discuss the four Shanghai artists within a broad context of the major issues confronting them, while touching briefly on some other important artists from the city. Some of the major trends in Shanghai art during this period made apparent by my discussion are: (1) an almost bewildering diversity in styles and interests, (2) a general tendency to avoid the overt and obvious political comment so typical of Beijing artists, (3) a genuine concern about the negative impact of commercialism on art and how to confront or adapt to it, and (4) witty and ironic discussion of the influence of Western hegemonism on the artists of Third World countries, rarely found in Chinese art created outside Shanghai.



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