When the story of the development of art in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 is at last told in detail, Yu Youhan will occupy a central role in the narrative. There are, I think, several aspects of the explosive development of Chinese art during the past twenty-five years which are still very little understood in the West, and perhaps not fully understood within China itself.
Western critics, for example, have great difficulty in grasping the fact that art in China is a plurality – that it embraces a very wide range of styles, and that this pluralism may also exist within the work of a single artist. They also want to see Chinese art as a geographical unity. Within this vast nation there are regional variations which play an important part in the dialogue between artists. That is, the sensibility of Shanghai is not necessarily the same as that of Shanghai. Nor is it the same as the attitudes which prevail in western China, in Szechwan and Yunnan.
Yu Youhan was one of the first important Chinese artists to emerge after the Cultural Revolution came to an end. He is a leading figure in the art scene of Shanghai, China’s most important commercial city. In crude terms, Shanghai has always been famous for its ‘popular’ culture, as opposed to the literati culture which was regarded as characteristic of the capital Beijing. The Cultural Revolution therefore had a less drastic and more ambiguous effect in Shanghai than it did in northeastern China.
It nevertheless supplies the context within which Yu Youhan’s work has to be viewed. Though in theory violently anti-western, the art of the Cultural Revolution period borrowed heavily from western forms, in particular from the Socialist Realist style which had been developed in the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s onwards. The very fact that Chinese artists made numerous oil-on-canvas works during this period put them firmly on the western side of the divide. However, soviet derived oil-painting was not the only favoured artistic product of the Cultural Revolution. There were also the works produced by collectives of peasant artists which had the advantage of being ideologically purer than paintings in Russian style. The Socialist Realist works continued to be made, however, because they fulfilled various propaganda functions. One of the most important of these was glorifying the image of Mao Zedong. Russian Socialist Realist painters such as Isaac Brodsky had multiplied images of Lenin-one of the most familiar of these is Brodsky’s ‘Lenin at the smolny Institute’, which exists in numerous versions – and later of Stalin, Mao’s painters did the same for him. Mao was shown performing symbolic actions and was represented in a limited series of poses which acquired iconic status through frequent repetition. Of the effectiveness of the best of these paintings there can be no doubt. They are technically adroit – Chinese artists have never suffered from a lack of manual skill – and they belong to a broader tradition than the one provided by Socialist Realism. Their ultimate ancestors are the political paintings produced by the great French neo-classicist of the late 18th and early 19th century-Jacques-Louis David. One proof of the success of these images is their surprising reabsorbtion by the West, not only in a long series of canvases by Andy Warhol, which are among his best works, but, more recently, in a series of paintings on the theme of ‘Let’s a thousand Flowers Bloom’ by the leading German Neo-Expressionist, Anselm Kiefer.
Yu Youhan belongs to a generation which counts the Cultural Revolution as a vital part of its experience. He was born in 1943, and therefore was an adult when it began, though still only in his early twenties. He graduated form the Central Institute of Technology in Beijing in 1970. He emerged as the undoubted leader of the so-called Political Pop Movement at the end of the 1980s. The art of the peasant communes associated with the Cultural Revolution had enjoyed a minor success in the West, especially among those who were politically on the left. Political Pop was, however, the first recognizably contemporary style to emerge from China, and it attracted a great deal of attention, opening the way for other varieties of Chinese contemporary art and leading to the situation which exists today, where Chinese artists are honoured participants in many major international exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale.
When Political Pop first appeared the temptation for western critics was twofold-first to see these new Chinese manifestations as a tribute to the Pop Art which had emerged in the United States and in Britain at the beginning of the 1960s, and second to see it as being somehow equivalent to the ‘perestroika’ or ‘glasnost’ art which had become prominent in Russia after Gorbachev Became General Secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union in 1985. Neither comparison was completely foolish, but both were misleading.
American and British Pop Art was above all a tribute to the consumer society. It was about western concepts of celebrity and the western appetite for mass produced consumer goods. When Warhol produced his Mao series, he was making an ironic comparison between Mao’s position and that of the subjects of some of his previous major series – Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy and Elvis Presley. His perception of the Chinese leader was filtered through what the western press had to say about him [Warhol never went to China], and also through the way in which Mao was perceived by young people who had been radicalised by the war in Vietnam. By producing a group of portraits of Mao, Warhol aligned himself with what was then called the counter-culture.
‘Perestroika’ art was largely the work of Russian artists who had operated on the margins of the official system for some years previously. Ilya kabakov, for example, had been an illustrator of children’s books. Its peculiarity was that it was obsessed with Soviet symbolisms. As the Soviet system visibly disintegrated, despite Gorbachev’s efforts to reform it from within, artists began to use the codings and euphemisms which concealed the reality of Soviet life as a way of undermining the system itself. There problem was that when it collapsed, the artist were deprived of their carefully elaborated language. There is no sense that Yu Youhan’s paintings featuring images of Mao are a stratagem of this kind. For him the founder of the Chinese Communist state is a fact of Chinese history, which he tries to align with other facts. In particular, he fuses the image of Mao with patterns and colours drawn from the great image-bank of Chinese popular culture – his sources range from cheap fabrics to cigarette packaging.
If one thinks of Chinese culture in terms of ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘elitist’ and ‘democratic’, one soon finds that the actual divisions are not always easy to perceive, nor are they invariably relevant when found. Mao Zedong himself, for example, was a practitioner of calligraphy, the scholar’s art form par excellence, even if is also central to the whole history of Chinese culture. Experts, not necessarily always in tune with his political doctrines, rank him as being one of the truly great Chinese calligraphers. There is, however, a kind of rough division to be found between art made for the people and art made for an elite. Whereas the elitist tradition in Chinese culture is consciously spare and refined, the popular tradition likes bright colour and assertive pattern. It is imagery of this kind that Yu Youhan selects for the Political Pop paintings featuring images of Mao. These are also, however, appropriations of the formulae devised by Mao’s official portraitists during the period of the Cultural Revolution.
What Yu Youhan seems to be saying in these works is that Mao, since is death in 1976, has become an integral part of Chinese mythology – that he is, in effect, in the process of being absorbed into the pantheon of Chinese gods. Where gods are concerned, westerners like myself are often bemused by Chinese attitudes. In a certain sense, the Chinese are the most sceptical and rational race on earth, and in another the most superstitious. You don’t make an offering to a god in a temple because he will do something for you. You make it because he might do something, even if your belief is at best half-hearted.
In a more recent series, Yu Youhan has returned to the image of Mao, but has used it in a different way. The paintings are irreverent parodies of western Post – Impressionist and Modernist art- Mao as he might have been depicted by Picasso; Mao by Gauguin; Mao by Van Gogh. In one of these – Mao by Van Gogh, the Chinese leader has actually changed sex, and manifests himself as an Arlzienne with red hair, warring an apron. Recent criticism in New York and London has developed a whole theory of ‘appropriation’, presenting, for example, Sherrie Levine re-photographing of famous images by Edward Weston as legitimate acts of feisty feminist self-assertion. European and North American critics are not always so comfortable with the situation when artists from non-western cultures take over and modify the classics of the western tradition. Another, though very different, example of this in China has been Sui Jianguo’s remarkable series of sculptures in which famous Greco-Roman or Renaissance statues (the Discobolus of Myron,or one of Michelangelo’s ‘Slaves’) are shown clothed in baggy modern suits rather than naked.
There is, however, another way of looking at the situation. Appropriation was something built in to traditional Chinese culture. Throughout the centuries the great masters of ink and brush devotedly copied their more eminent predecessors, to the point where many paintings of this sort are peculiarly difficult either to attribute or to date. Yu Youhan, though a western-style painter, working with oil and canvas rather than paper and ink, is in this sense doing a very Chinese thing.
One of the fascinating aspects of successful works of art is often their ambiguity, and ambiguity is a quality that Yu Youhan’s work possesses in full measure. Despite their bright colours and use of popular motifs, these are not paintings that yield their full meanings immediately. What they do is to invite us to meditate on two things: one is China’s recent history; the other is her relationship with the West. The twentieth century, one can say without contradiction, was one of the most traumatic in the whole of China’s long history. There even came a point when the national identity seemed to be threatened. The closing decades of the century did, nevertheless, represent a remarkable revival: China recovered its status as a great power and began a process of economic transformation which has still not fully worked itself out. As part of this process China has adopted elements from western culture, particularly those which are industrial and technological. The new skyscrapers rising in Beijing and Shanghai are witnesses to this.
Chinese artists have had to come to terms with these changes, while still remaining recognisably Chinese. It is Yu Youhan’s distinction to have been one of the pioneers in this. He was one of the first’ western style’ painters in China to find an artistic language which was unmistakably his own. For this reason he is likely to have an important place in histories of Chinese art. There is, nevertheless, often a problem with pioneering works. They offer all too much evidence of the enormous stress the artist went through to make them. I do not find this feeling of strain in Yu Youhan’s work. I respond to it personally because I find it enormously pleasurable. It’s smiling irony makes it enormously sympathetic. We live in a period when avant-garde are strives at all costs to be sensational, to make and impression, if possible to shock. Yu Youhan is not interested in this. His aim is to intrigue us, to make us smile – and then, if possible, to makes us think as well.