AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Zhan Wang Exhibition Theme

The exhibition will display the variety of Zhan Wang’s stainless steel sculptures and installations. Zhan Wang is a sculptor whom was born in 1963 in Beijing, China. Although throughout his successful career he has the opportunity to hold exhibitions in multiple other countries, Wang was artistically formed in China. His work is critical in nature and considered as part of the surrealism movement. The Surrealism movement in both art and culture seeks to reunite conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy can be joined to the everyday rational world in “an absolute reality, a surreality (The Surrealist Manifesto, 1924).” Wang’s critical pieces particularly center around decisions taken by the Chinese government while in his childhood and young adulthood. The exhibition will display the variety of Zhan Wang’s stainless steel sculptures and installations. It will feature an Urban Landscape installation, multiple sculptures including some from Wang’s Artificial Rock series and pictures of other pieces not present at the exhibition. Although Zhan Wang’s stainless steel pieces may all use the same medium, they represent many different critiques. The exhibition will attempt to give Zhan Wang’s distinct critiques in the medium of stainless steel a voice and home. 

The reseason behind the specific medium selection is the originality and creativity in stainless steel sculpture and installation. Additionally, although Zhan Wang has pieces and installations across a variety of mediums, stainless steel is one of his most used. Many of his pieces in the medium have obtain high levels of fame such that stainless steel pieces have become a symbol of Wang’s work. This medium was acquired however, as the surrealism style associated with such pieces. His first significant works were traditional in nature, however, in 1990 Wang began experimenting with surrealism. 

Wang’s first internationally recognized surrealistic series, the “Mao Suit” series, was first exhibited in 1994 and consisted of a composition composed of a variety of Mao style suits which had been solidified and posed in different ways.  In 1995, his first internationally recognized stainless steel series was first exhibited, “Artificial Rocks”. Since then, the vast majority of Wang’s internationally recognized pieces, series or installations have been in the medium of stainless steel. 

With the exhibit, I intend to highlight such pieces as a representation of Wang’s critiques of China, while detailing the differences between the pieces, series and installations in the medium.



Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Surrealism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 4, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/art/Surrealism.

Central Academy of Fine Arts. “RTSM | ZHAN Wang: It was already the doomsday, but I’m back to reality again.”. 2020. https://www.cafa.com.cn/en/News/details/8330204.

Wang, Alice. “Zhan Wang: Master Sculptor”. ARTZINE, A Chinese Contemporary Art Portal. 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20120310022556/http://new.artzinechina.com/display.php?a=200

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Exhibition Theme

As an exhibition designer, my theme is to focus on one aspect of Cai Guo-Qiang’s works, which is the use of gunpowder as a medium for his art. Gunpowder has been used as a weapon of destruction for centuries, but Cai has transformed it into a medium for creation, a medium that has allowed him to create awe-inspiring works of art.

The use of gunpowder as a medium for art is not only unique but also significant in understanding art in 20th century China. It reflects the cultural and political context in which Cai grew up and how it has influenced his artistic vision. Cai was born in Quanzhou, China, and grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a period of great social and political upheaval in China. He was also trained in traditional Chinese painting, which heavily influenced his art.

Cai’s use of gunpowder as a medium is a reflection of his desire to break free from the constraints of traditional Chinese painting and to experiment with new mediums and forms. It is a reflection of
his interest in exploring the relationship between art, nature, and the environment. Cai’s gunpowder works are not just about the process of creation but also about the process of destruction and the cyclical nature of life.

In my exhibition design, I will showcase a selection of Cai’s gunpowder works, including his famous “Gunpowder Drawing” series. I will also include a video installation that shows the process of creating these works, highlighting the physicality and danger involved in the creation of gunpowder art.

By focusing on Cai’s use of gunpowder as a medium for his art, my exhibition design aims to contribute to our understanding of art in 20th century China. It reflects the cultural and political context in which Cai grew up and how it has influenced his artistic vision. It also highlights the importance of experimentation and breaking free from traditional forms in art. Finally, it encourages the audience to consider the relationship between art, nature, and the environment, and how art can be a reflection of our interactions with the world around us.


Work cited:

Neuendorf, Henri. “Watch Cai Guo-Qiang’s Explosive Performance.” Artnet News, 16 Apr. 2016, news.artnet.com/art-world/cai-guo-qiang-gunpoweder-performance-475250. Accessed 15 May 2023.

ROFFINO, SARA . “Cai Guo-Qiang Burns up the Art Scene This Fall.” Galerie, 18 Sept. 2017, galeriemagazine.com/snapshot-cai-guo-qiang/. Accessed 15 May 2023.

Xu Beihong Exhibition Theme

Xu Beihong, The foolish old man who moved the mountain, ink and color on paper, horizontal scroll, 1940.

Oil painting, known as a prominent art form in the West and the world, has showcased extraordinary artistic charm since its inception. In China, oil painting was once referred to as “Western painting,” and its appearance had significant implications for the Chinese people. However, before the end of the 19th century, Chinese understanding of oil painting was limited and one-sided. The influence of Western painting on traditional Chinese art was minimal. It was not until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that oil painting was widely popularized and recognized in China.

As a new form of artistic expression, oil painting differs from any category of Chinese painting in terms of material techniques, observation, and aesthetic experience. It is subversive to the Chinese peoples, and therefore, the development of contemporary Chinese oil painting and its “nationalization” phenomenon holds significant importance for the 20th-century development of Chinese oil painting. 

Oil painting developed in the west, but this does not mean that the oil painting art expression language should have the fixed western pattern. After the introduction of oil painting into China, the Chinese artists began the process of assimilation and localization of oil painting. In the early 20th century, Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, and other Chinese artists went to Europe to study painting during a time when western modernism was flourishing in literature and art. Within the field of painting, various modernist schools, such as realism, impressionism, and post-impressionism, were coexisting and could be studied according to personal interest and needs. This allowed for a combination of different painting styles and schools, leading to the development and success of Chinese oil painting during this period.

Xu Beihong was one of the artists who led the movement of nationalizing oil painting in China. After his appointment as the dean of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts and the president of the China Artists Association in the 1950s, Xu Beihong attached great importance to injecting elements of Chinese national culture into his works. My exhibition will focus on Xu Beihong’s contribution in the movement of nationalizing oil painting in China, including his works that range from before the Anti-Japanese War and after the founding of the new China. Under different historical contexts, I plan to demonstrate how Xu Beihong’s oil paintings reflect his ideology that promoted the nationalization of Chinese oil painting. 


Sufang, He 何淑芳. 2016. 对油画民族化的深入思考 (A Profound Reflection on the Nationalization of Oil Painting). 中国期刊. https://www.zzqklm.com/w/yl/17086.html.

Western Influence on Chinese Arts & Culture: Walter Kraus on Xu Bing

Xu Bing is a modern artist who specializes in full room-scale installations, as well as art books. He created a sort of script he calls ‘Square Word Calligraphy’ that allows Latin letters to be used in traditional Chinese character form, like the font of the title of his official website:

This exhibition will mainly feature “1st Class” a massive model tiger skin rug made from stacked and arranged ‘1st Class’ brand cigarettes, the cheapest brand available in China. I will also showcase Xu Bing’s “Poem Stone Chairs” that form an ancient poem called “Reflections While Reading” by Zhu Xi (Southern Song Dynasty). “A small square pond, an uncovered mirror where sunlight and clouds linger and leave. I asked how it stays so clear. It said spring water keeps flowing in.” He writes this poem in his square calligraphy format. In my exhibit, people can sit on the poem stones that would surround the tiger skin rug. Including other works as well, my exhibit will explore Xu Bing’s recognition of Western culture influencing the arts and culture of modern China. The exhibit will mainly focus on the Tobacco Project and Xu Bing’s exploration of humanity’s relationship with tobacco and addiction, but it will also give context to his artistic prowess by highlighting some of his “Square Word Calligraphy” works.

Masks and Metaphors: The Dual Artistry of Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi is a component of Chinas dynamic history, crea­­ting artwork serving as a lens into understanding the complex social and economic factors of China’s development. Over the course of his career, Fanzhi expresses realism (depicting the world how it actually is without sugarcoating), expressionism (a focus on emotions and personal perspectives), and lately abstract works (creative and unique settings very different from our physical world). Fanzhi is best known for his rejection of Socialist Realism, something which had been very popular during the Cultural Revolution. Socialist Realism was a method of promoting socialism and communism by creating works that were uplifting and inspiring. Zeng has clarified that his theme is the agony of being human.

The range of works that I am interested in exploring are his mask series, and his abstract works series tied together into one exposition. Key themes that I want to explore are identity and symbolism. The reason why I really enjoy Zeng Fanzhi’s works and why I was initially drawn to him is his unique talent mixed with rich symbolism. In the past I have explored body language and symbolism, and also smartphones with their impact on modern society. The symbolism of the masks and the changing societal mindsets parallel with topics I am interested in which make me very excited to create this exposition.







Others will gain important value as they learn about Chinese art in 20th and 21st century through the works of Zeng Fanzhi. His technical expertise using color, line, and form are great ways to springboard into symbolism. The Mask series paintings that I will include are Mask Series #13 (1994), #8 (1997), #6 (1998), and The Last Supper (2001). For example, #8 displays a group of men with exaggerated masks that depict them weeping and laughing at the same time, which is an interesting dynamic between emotions and identity. I think that the monochrome masks probe the tendency of Chinese citizens to hide feelings and emotions, leading to a sense of isolation. Fanzhi himself had feelings of isolation in 1994 when he entered Beijing, knowing no one. The others touch upon the same superficiality, as well as the intersectionality between the economy and sociology/relationships. I think that viewers will have a lasting impression and have a better idea of China after seeing this artwork because our minds are hardwired to respond to emotions and contextual cues, which the masks are a goldmine for.

The abstract work I chose is “Bodhidharma, Still There” 2015. It uses vivid greens, blues, yellows, pinks, and purples. I sense a feeling of movement, and is eerily similar to a dark scary forest. We are situated in the dense tangles of overgrown bushes and thorns, and we are essentially at the edge between Western abstraction and Classical Chinese Landscape Art. Zeng Fanzhi has put a new twist on ancient traditions. You could say Zeng Fanzhi went back to our roots, while at the same time going beyond them.

Works cited:



“Work of the Week: Zeng Fanzhi, ‘mask: Rainbow’ (1997).” ArtReview, artreview.com/work-of-the-week-zeng-fanzhi-mask-rainbow-1997/. Accessed 13 May 2023.

“Zeng Fanzhi – Evening & Day Editions New York Tuesday, April 23, 2019.” Phillips, www.phillips.com/detail/zeng-fanzhi/NY030119/325. Accessed 13 May 2023.

Zeng, Fanzhi. “Fanzhi Zeng: Bodhidharma, Still There, 2015.” Art Basel, 1 Jan. 1970, www.artbasel.com/catalog/artwork/33449/Fanzhi-Zeng-Bodhidharma-Still-There.


Zeng, Fanzhi, Gladys Chung, Crystal Ming, Tiantian Feng, Fabrice Hergott, David Anfam, and Gustav Mahler. Zeng Fanzhi. Zürich: Hauser et Wirth Publishers, 2018.

Zeng Fanzhi : Catalogue Raisonn Volume I. Place of publication not identified: Skira, 2017.

Yue Minjun Exhibition

While the various pieces of art by Yue Minjun all have different meanings and reference different important events throughout the artist’s life, all of his works have one thing in common, a smile. Any person drawn by Yue is shown as having that same signature grin which has far more meaning that it appears to have on the surface and Yue is not the first artist to even use this smile. Within China a new art movement had sprouted from the events that took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the cynical realism movement. Despite Yue consistently claiming his art was never a part of this movement it absolutely had a large influence on his style. Artists like Fang Lijun and Liu Wei also used this wide grin in their art as a way to criticize and rebel against the government. While each artist may use the smile for different purposes it is always at least meant to mock the government, after all, if they can’t fight back physically they can at least laugh at them. While this smile is used in all of his works, one of the most notable works of his would be Sea of the Brain (2001). This work depicts Yue with his head open and inside a body of water where Mao Zedong can be seen swimming. This is definitely a reference to when Mao went for a swim in the Yangtze River. The fact that it is within his head however could represent the oppressiveness of the government during the reign of Mao and how every aspect of everyone’s lives were controlled in order to fit Mao’s image for China. The grin on the person is a way to try and mock these efforts by laughing and smiling through them. Another thing to note is that the person depicted is clearly the artist himself which can mean that this is how he sees himself. While the influence of Mao was so intense it was reaching the brains of the people, he was simply laughing at it in defiance at how ridiculous this level of control was. This work is one of many that will be shown within the following exhibition with the focal point being the signature grin depicted in Yue’s many works. It will contain a series of both his paintings and his sculptures which are just as famous as the paintings.



Cohen, Andrew. 2013. “YUE MINJUN.” ArtAsiaPacific, Jul, 104. https://libproxy.union.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/magazines/yue-minjun/docview/1542882532/se-2.

Navigating Modernity: Zhang Daqian and the Art of Resilience in 20th Century China

A pivotal figure in Chinese art history, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) made important contributions to the art world over the course of a career that spanned six turbulent decades (Sullivan, 1996). Zhang is a particularly diverse artist whose work includes modern art experiments as well as traditional Chinese painting, giving a visual picture of the cultural changes that occurred in China over the 20th century (Shen, 2012). 

The proposed exhibition will highlight Zhang’s artistically flexible answers to societal and political upheavals. The issue is particularly important because it emphasizes how art functions as a form of resistance and perseverance during times of significant cultural and political change (Wang, 1998). 

Zhang’s body of work reflects China’s more general cultural and political changes. His early paintings, which are steeped in the tradition of classical Chinese painting, exhibit precise brushwork and composition (Sullivan, 1996). Zhang’s style did, however, change to embrace elements of modernism with the beginning of Communist control, most notably in his later splash-ink works (Shen, 2012). This artistic change, which demonstrates Zhang’s tenacity, can be seen as a silent protest against the Communist government’s limiting ideologies (Wang, 1998). 

The socio-political turmoil in China during the 20th century had a big impact on Zhang’s development as an artist. Zhang chose self-exile after the Communist Party took power in 1949, first settling in Taiwan before moving on to Brazil and California (Sullivan, 1996). His geographic dislocation made it possible for him to incorporate various cultural influences into his work, bridging the gap between tradition and modernity and East and West (Shen, 2012). 

When Zhang’s work is considered in the perspective of China’s 20th century history as a whole, it becomes clear how Zhang and his contemporaries, like Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, struggled with the conflict between tradition and modernity (Sullivan, 1996). Their work displays a common tenacity in the face of significant change (Wang, 1998). 

The works of Zhang Daqian offer an intriguing prism through which to explore the interaction between art and its historical setting. Studying his work and the tenacity it displays helps us understand the larger story of cultural change and resistance in 20th-century China. Zhang’s aptitude at juggling tradition and innovation during alterations in his personal and political circumstances emphasizes the legacy’s continuing importance in the discussion of art history (Shen, 2012).

“Dwelling in the Qingbian Mountains” (1947) – One of Zhang’s most renowned paintings, it exhibits the classic Chinese landscape painting technique (Sullivan, 1996). It is a wonderful example of Zhang’s early style before the Communist takeover because of the tedious brushwork and composition, which mirror the traditional Chinese painting heritage. 

“A Lotus” (1950) – Zhang produced this piece while living in self-imposed exile in Taiwan. It illustrates his fortitude and versatility amid a time of significant political and personal upheaval (Shen, 2012). Bold color and large brushstrokes are used, which shows an experimental style and a preference for modernism. 

“Lotus and Mandarin Ducks” (1963) – This picture was produced when Zhang was in Brazil and it demonstrates the influence of Western art on his work and signals a significant break from his traditional roots (Sullivan, 1996). This artwork exemplifies the blending of tradition and modernity, as well as East and West.

“Splashed Color Landscape” (1965) – This piece is an example of Zhang’s later work, which is distinguished by his inventive splash-ink style (Wang, 1998). It represents Zhang’s fortitude and inventiveness as an artist and serves as a symbol of his defiance of Communist government restrictions. 


  • Sullivan, M. (1996). Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China. University of California Press. 
  • Shen, K. (2012). Zhang Daqian and the Chinese Art Market. Art Journal, 12(4), 76-89. 
  • Wang, E. (1998). The Art of Resistance: Zhang Daqian’s Splashed-Color Landscape. Modern China, 24(4), 408-434.

Monuments of Tiananmen Square – Exhibition Theme

Communism and monuments are inseparable. The Soviet Union has over a thousand monuments, and so did the Eastern bloc and North Korea. As a new member of the communist state, China did not become an exception either. These massive monuments, some of them going over 250ft, often depicted marshals and soldiers in World War II or proletarians fighting for their cause in a socialist revolt. Otherwise, it was mainly statues of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin that were being erected, in a style of socialist realism. China before being swallowed up by communist ideology was foreign to these European styles, but with the help of Hua Tianyou, the Chinese art scene were able to blend it with their own traditional Chinese style. This new European influenced avant-garde style took a big role in many monuments depicting the struggles of people during the revolution that are to be created. In this exhibition, I will focus on none other than Tiananmen Square, the beating heart of modern China and dive into the shift of its political significance from both the Chinese politburo and the people. 

Consisting of Tiananmen, National Museum of China, Great Hall of the People, and Mao’s Mausoleum, the historic significance as well as political significance of the square is immense. And just like other Marxist-Leninist states, the government decorated Tiananmen Square with a number of monuments. The Monument to the People’s Heroes (Figure 1) is one of the highlights, in which is a monument to commemorate the fallen martyrs. With golden epitaph written in Mao’s calligraphy and eight different bas-reliefs portraying key events throughout the century of wars, it is a place where a person can feel history firsthand just by looking at it. Two sculptures stand in front of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (Figure 2), as well as Lincoln Memorial style Mao inside the mausoleum (Figure 3). The square was created to commemorate Mao’s accomplishments and became a mecca for mostly young Mao enthusiasts, but as time moved on, it slowly became a center for democratic movement, which started with the mourning of the death of Zhou Enlai, and later of Hu Yaobang. It eventually led to the student protests at the Tiananmen square in 1989. Over the course of 40 years, people on both sides believed in change for different reasons, and the monuments symbolized that in their respective ways.

Figure 1. The Monument to the People’s Heroes. Photograph by Chang-Tai Huang. Source: Mao’s New World, Figure 62

Figure 2. Statue outside Mao's Mausoleum. Photograph by Jp16103. Source: Wikipedia Chairman Mao Memorial Hall

Figure 2. Statue outside Mao’s Mausoleum. Photograph by Jp16103. Source: Wikipedia Chairman Mao Memorial Hall

Figure 3. Statue of the Seated Mao Zedong. Photograph by Ye Yushan. Source: ancientarthistory


Works Cited:

Hung, Wu. “Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments.” Representations, vol. 35, 1991, pp. 84–117, https://doi.org/10.2307/2928718.

Zao Wou Ki exhibition theme – Abstract Art


Zao Wou Ki (1920-2013) was a Chinese-French painter. After studying at CHina Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, he moved to Paris to pursue his career in arts. He is known for his abstract paintings, although he occasionally drew landscapes and even created some potteries. What really stood out to me about Zao was his “obsession” with abstract art. I have decided to focus on this form of art, because I thought comparing this to socialist realist paintings will really capture the transition from an oppressive period in the art world (in China) to a more free period.


Background information and Significance of Abstract Art

After the end of the Cultural Revolution marked by Mao’s death, artists in China were now able to paint whatever they wanted, instead of being forced to paint socialist realist paintings. Although there were still some restrictions on the type of artwork that could be posted publicly, this transition led to many artists to try different forms of art, some shown in China Avant-Garde Exhibition: No U-Turn In Beijing (1989).

Understanding how art styles have changed during the period of change is important, and to understand the transition in art styles it is important to realize different forms of art that emerged, such as in the “New Literati Movement-文人藝術”. This movement was led by Western-influecenced artists and sought to create a new form of art that reflected their contemporary world (Negotiating histories: Traditions in Modern and Contemporary Asia-Pacific Art, 2013). The exhibition will showcase one particular theme of art – Abstraction with respect to Zao Wou Ki, although other abstract artists during this time will be mentioned.


Types of Art to be included in the Exhibition

The plan is to have 2 abstract paintings from Zao, 2 abstract artworks from other abstract artists (Wu GuanZhong-painting and Li Huasheng-sculpture) during that time, and 1 socialist realist painting. Here are the artworks:


In order:

[Zao Wou Ki – 04.01.82, 1982

 [Zao Wou Ki – 18.03.2008, 2008]

[Wu Guanzhong – Water village (1982)]

[Li Huasheng – 0112 (2001)]

[Pan Jiajun – I am Seagull (1971)]



Kikuchi, Yuko. “Recentering Craft in Postmodern and Postcolonial rewriting of Visual Cultural History.” (2013).


Art inspired by the cultural revolution. Phaidon. https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2017/may/16/art-inspired-by-the-cultural-revolution/ accessed May 11, 2023.


Li Huasheng. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/li-huasheng-li-hua-sheng-0112 accessed May 11, 2023.


Oils Paintings Thumbs. Zao Wou Ki Foundation. https://www.zaowouki.org/en/the-artist/works/oils-paintings-thumbs/ accessed May 11, 2023.


Wu Guanzhong – Water Village (1982). The China Online Museum. https://www.comuseum.com/product/wu-guanzhong-water-village-1982/ accessed May 11, 2023. 


Composing Chen Qiulin (Exhibition Theme)


What does a Chinese theater look like? You can look it up and find grand buildings, breathing in drama. The theater you find will have bright


spotlights, golden ceilings and red draped across the room. This regal image of China is painting into our minds. We get to see China who is western and finished. We don’t see the realities of China. The hidden villages filled with authentic theaters, piled streets and old swaying buildings. Composing Chen shows that hidden part of China, the young girl who grew up there and the woman that it created.

Composing Chen shines light on the non-westernized China. Chen is a courageous but private artist who has a wide array of talents from photography, sculpture to filming and printmaking. Understanding her life will lead us to understanding small towns the full impact governments have on China’s communities. Through her, we directly see the impact of mass displacement, erasure of ancient Chinese history and the sentimental history of families in China. 

The exhibition’s main focus is Chen and the time period she grew up in. Who she is as a person will be highlighted so its vital all the pieces chosen include her image in it.  This is due to her intentionality in her work, including herself as a part of the piece speaks volumes on the topic she is trying to communicate. She explained in an interview at SAM that constructing a piece “is like telling a story or composing a piece of music. There are different parts in music. For instance, a picture represents a part, the installation represents another and the video is a part as well. … They are all telling one story” (Chen Qiulin at Shepperton Art Museum, 2016, 1:30-2:35).

Each of the pieces in the exhibition will seem like completely different scenes however they are all in the same town. Whether it’s on the bridge of her hometown, in the rubble of the collapsing building or standing at the edge of a river that has swallowed her forgotten home. All of the pieces speak on her experience with the Three Gorges Dam and her feelings of losing her home.

The piece above represents her home town drowning. She is surrounded by rubble and when she is able to wake up, she throws up all the water she drowned in. She represents herself as her hometown, being swallowed under the water and rubble. Her hometown is forever lost but a piece of it lives on in her. That’s why she is able to wake up and spit out the water.



Chen, Quilin. 2013. Review of CHEN QIULIN 陈秋林 Interview by Monica Merlin. Tate.org. https://www.tate.org.uk/research/research-centres/tate-research-centre-asia/women-artists-contemporary-china/chen-qiulin.

Ganzenberg, Christian, Sunny Sun, and Zeng Ziluo. 2019. Chen Qiulin. Peppermint. Berlin: Distanz Verlag.

Shepperton Art Museum. Chen Qiulin at SAM. July 11, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Geqc1D7P868.

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