AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Gavin Bibbins

图在东西之间 Figures between East and West, A Zhang Hongtu Exhibition

图在东西之间, Figure Between East and West


As an artist, Zhang Hongtu seems to constantly be navigating the theme of East and West in his work. Zhang Hongtu, 张宏图,born in 1943 and still living today, gained fame in the 1980s and 1990s initially for his series of paintings of trivializing depictions of Mao, such as replacing the farmer on a Quaker Oats box with Mao1. Zhang became notable for fusions of Eastern and Western symbols like these. While Zhang’s transformations of Mao’s image in pieces such as The Last Supper and his Material Mao series contain powerful political and social critiques, they were personal to Zhang Hongtu as well. Having lived through the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Zhang Hongtu had personally experienced its paranoia and repression. When he moved to New York in 1982 he was able to freely explore his own relationship with Mao’s icon and question Mao’s image. With the newfound freedom of the Western world Zhang Hongtu was able to further investigate the exchange of ideas between East and West. 


With Zhang Hongtu’s later work there features a more introspective examination of Western and Eastern artistic movements and philosophies with similarities being aptly pointed out by the artist such as the comparison of Van Gogh and Bodhidharma in the Van Gogh – Bodhidharma series2. Zhang Hongtu’s use of the theme of East and West goes beyond the use of Western motifs to examine the East but to also break down the duality of an East and West split such as in his Sanshui series where he uses impressionist brushwork to recreate famous Chinese ink and brush paintings3. The theme of East and West then no longer serves as an antagonistic relationship but transforms into one of self-recognition as the artist’s philosophy evolves. 


  1. Zhang Hongtu, Interview with Jane DeBevoise. Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art From 1980-1990. New York City: Asia Art Archive, 2009 
  2. Zhang, Hongtu, Interview with Martin Powers, Ars Orientalis Volume 49, Michigan Publishing, 2018
  3. Lee, Luchia Meihua, Jerome Silbergeld, and Julia Frances Andrews. Zhang Hongtu: Expanding Visions of a Shrinking World. Queens, NY: Queens Museum, 2015.

Zhang Hongtu 张宏图

Zhang Hongtu was born in 1943 in Gansu Province in the northwest of China to a Muslim family. He studied at a high school attached to the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing. Having lived through the cultural revolution, Zhang witnessed book burnings and killings which led him to conclude that this was not a revolution but a destruction of culture. Zhang Hongtu’s status as a Muslim also cast him in a tumultuous relationship with modern China. In 1957 his father, a devout Muslim who had devoted his time to teaching Arabic around China, was labelled a Rightist, a counterrevolutionary. His father managed to avoid being sent to a reeducation camp, however his family was marked with the stigma of a traitor. In 1982 Zhang Hongtu left China after enrolling in the Art Student League in New York. Primarily a painter, Zhang Hongtu works in a variety of media in creating his own art combining influences from both East and West with criticisms of both.

Fig. 1, Zhong, Hongtu, “The Last Banquet,” Laser prints pages from the Red Book and acrylic on canvas, 1989, Collection of the artist

Zhang, Hongtu, Interview with Jonathan Hays. Boundaries in China. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1995

Zhang, Hongtu, Interview with Martin Powers, Ars Orientalis Volume 49, Michigan Publishing, 2018


My name is Gavin Bibbins. I am a senior and an Asian Studies and Visual Arts ID major and a Psych minor. After graduation I hope to work in 3d animation or computer graphics, digital art is my specialty. Through my study of East Asia I found a love for philosophy in how it permeates the entire being of a society. I believe that with all cultures, values and ways of thinking are imbedded in art and culture, so to best understand the philosophy and art of a culture one should study both. By studying the history of a place through its art one can peer inside the mind of its creator and audience and better grasp the socio-political climate of the time. As viewers we also have to understand that we are never separate from the art and the circumstances in which it was created. These events will continue to shape how we live and exist in the world.

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