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Title: Oil paintings and politics : weaving a heroic tale of the Chinese communist revolution
Authors: Hung, Chang-Tai
Keywords: Art
People's Republic of China
Chinese Communist Party
Revolutionary history paintings
Issue Date: Oct-2007
Citation: Comparative studies in society and history, v. 49, Oct. 2007, p. 783–814
Abstract: “In my entire life I did not produce a single painting that was uppermost in mind to create,” the celebrated painter Dong Xiwen (1914–1973) reportedly lamented on his deathbed. Dong may not have produced the dream piece that he would truly cherish, but he did create, albeit unwillingly, a deeply controversial work of art in his 1953 oil painting The Founding Ceremony of the Nation (Kaiguo dadian) (Figures 1 and 2), for it epitomizes the tension between art and politics in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In this famous piece, Dong portrays Chairman Mao Zedong (1893–1976) in Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1949, with his senior associates in attendance—Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969), Zhu De (1886–1976), Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), Gao Gang (1905–1954), Lin Boqu (1886–1960), and others. They are surrounded by huge lanterns, a Chinese symbol of prosperity, and a sea of red banners that declare the founding of a new nation. When first unveiled in 1953, the painting was widely hailed as one of the greatest oil paintings ever produced by a native artist. In just three months more than half-a-million reproductions of the painting were sold. But the fate of this work soon took an ominous turn, and the artist was requested to make three major revisions during his lifetime. In 1954 Dong was instructed to excise Gao Gang from the scene when Gao was purged by the Party for allegedly plotting to seize power and create an “independent kingdom” in Manchuria. During the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s Liu Shaoqi was accused of advocating a “bourgeois reactionary line” and subsequently was purged, and Dong was ordered in 1967 to redo his painting again and erased Liu from the inauguration scene. Then, in 1972, also during the Cultural Revolution, the radicals, commonly labeled the “Gang of Four,” ordered a third revision, namely, that Lin Boqu be eliminated from the painting for allegedly opposing the marriage of Mao and Jiang Qing (1914–1991) during the Yan’an days. By this time Dong was dying of cancer and was too ill to pick up the brush, so his student Jin Shangyi (b. 1934), and another artist, Zhao Yu (1926–1980), were assigned the task. These two artists, afraid of doing further damage to the original piece, eventually produced a replica of the painting, with the ailing Dong brought from the hospital for consultation on his embattled work. Though Dong died the following year, the ill-fated story of The Founding Ceremony of the Nation did not end: in 1979, with the demise of the Gang of Four and the Party’s official rehabilitation of Liu Shaoqi, the images of Liu, Gao Gang, and Lin Boqu were restored in the painting. Because Jin Shangyi was on a foreign tour, Yan Zhenduo (b. 1940), a graduate of the Department of Oil Painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), was called upon to help reinstall the three leaders.
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