20111121-Christies wu guanzhong.jpg
work by Wu Guanzhong
Beginning with the New Culture Movement, Chinese artists started to adopt Western techniques. It also was during this time that oil painting was introduced to China.

“In the early years of the People's Republic, artists were encouraged to employ socialist realism. Some Soviet socialist realism was imported without modification, and painters were assigned subjects and expected to mass-produce paintings. This regimen was considerably relaxed in 1953, and after the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956-57, traditional Chinese painting experienced a significant revival. Along with these developments in professional art circles, there was a proliferation of peasant art depicting everyday life in the rural areas on wall murals and in open-air painting exhibitions.

“During the Cultural Revolution, art schools were closed, and publication of art journals and major art exhibitions ceased. Nevertheless, amateur art continued to flourish throughout this period. Following the Cultural Revolution, art schools and professional organizations were reinstated. Exchanges were set up with groups of foreign artists, and Chinese artists began to experiment with new subjects and techniques.

Book: Andrews, Julia F., and Kuiyi Shen. A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth-Century China. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1998.

Chiang Dai-chein (Zhang Daqian)

Chang Dai-she (Chiang Dai-chein, 1899-1983) is generally recognized as China's greatest 20th century painter. Born in Sichuan and regarded as a non-conformist, who worked briefly as a private calligrapher for a bandit, he mastered nearly all China styles and produced 30,000 paintings. He lived many years in South America and kept a pet gibbon.Among Chang's most famous paintings are the Tang-style “Horse and Groom”, “Opera Character” (known for its expressive brush strokes), “Tibetan Women with Mastiff and Puppy “(inspired by Qin Xian), and “Clear Morning Over Lakes and Mountains” (a forgery of a 10th century painting that was sold as an original to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts). Chang was an expert forger who sold thousands of paintings attributed to classic painters.

The artist Gu Gin did wonderful abstract-like geometric pieces like “A Deer Crying”.

Zhang Daqian Tops 2011 World Art Sales

The late Chinese artist Zhang Daqian was the best-selling artist at auction in 2011, global market monitor Artprice told AFP, while Spanish great Pablo Picasso dropped out of the top three.Chinese artists dominate the top end of the art market. Zhang's compatriot Qi Bashi was the second top seller and six Chinese artists in all were in the top ten, while Chinese art accounts for 40 percent of sales by value. [Source: AFP, February 23, 2012]

"China, which has held the top spot in art auctions since 2010, took two of its star artists to the head of the annual table in 2011," said Thierry Ehrmann, chairman and founder of Paris-based Artprice. The third place in the Artprice table was taken by American pop art master Andy Warhol, knocking Picasso -- who died in 1973 and has been the bestseller in 13 of the past 14 years -- back into fourth place.

Zhang was not only top in sales but, according to Artprice, he had the best annual haul of any artist ever with 1,371 pieces going for a total of $554.53 million (418 million euros). Qi, who lived between 1864 and 1957, came in behind, netting art investors $510.57 million and Warhol hit $325.88 million.

Wu Guanzhong and Qi Baishi

Wu Guanzhong, a master of modern Chinese painting, is regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th-century Chinese art. His landscapes, which combine Western oil painting and Chinese ink, techniques, are prized by collectors. [Source: Joyce Hor-Chung Lau, New York Times, June 27, 2010]

Wu Guanzhong was born in 1919 in Jiangsu Province. He studied at the École Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-arts in Paris on scholarship. While some of his contemporaries chose to stay in the West, Wu returned to China to teach at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and other institutions. He was sent to a labor camp during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and did not hold his first solo show until he was 59.

In 2007, his “Ancient City of Jiaohe“ sold for 37 million renminbi, or about $5 million at the time, in Beijing. It was painted during a trip Wu took to the Xinjiang region of China. In December, his The Great Falls of Tanzania sold for 30.8 million renminbi, also in Beijing.

Wu had an impact on the way the Western art world viewed Chinese painting. In 1992, he was the first living Chinese artist to have a solo exhibition at the British Museum in London. In 1991, France made him an officer of l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2002, he was the first Chinese artist to be awarded the Médaille des Arts et Lettres by the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France.

Wu died in June 2010. He was active to the end. The South China Morning Post reported that he created four last works this year. They will be displayed in Hong Kong this month.

In May 2011, the Global Times reported: “An ink-wash painting by Chinese painting master Qi Baishi (1864-1957) was sold for 425.5 million yuan ($65.5 million) during the Guardian Spring Auction at the Beijing International Hotel Convention Center Sunday night. The auction started with a price of 88 million yuan ($13.5 million) and was sealed with the record price for modern and contemporary Chinese art work after more than 30 minutes of bidding. As one of the largest paintings in Qi's oeuvre, it measures 100 centimeters by 266 centimeters, with the calligraphy couplet engraved within measuring 65.8 centimeters by 264.5 centimeters. The couplet reads "A Long Life, A Peaceful World." Another piece of Qi's work was also sold for 80 million yuan ($12.3 million) at the auction. [Source: Global Times, May 23, 2011]

Traditional Chinese Painting in the Twentieth Century

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “ The first decades of the twentieth century marked the end of the insular, tradition-bound Qing empire (1644–1911) and the forceful entry of China into the modern age. Foreign influences, largely restricted to a handful of ports and missionary initiatives during much of the nineteenth century, now flooded into China in an irresistible tide. Indeed, the massive influx of Western ideas and products constituted the most important factor defining China's culture during the twentieth century. [Source: Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“China's defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) spurred a movement for reform among members of the scholarly class with the ideal of marrying "Chinese essential principles with Western practical knowledge." During its final years, the Qing dynasty did launch a number of initiatives aimed at modernization, but its efforts were too feeble and too late. Advocates for radical change, particularly the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), were able to capitalize upon growing dissatisfaction with Manchu rule to topple the Qing dynasty. The founding of the Republic of China in 1912 brought about an end to two millennia of imperial rule. During the next two decades, the young republic struggled to consolidate its power: initially by uniting central military and political leadership after the misguided attempt by Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), the first president, to establish himself as emperor; and second by bringing together China's diverse regions, after wresting control over certain areas from local warlords. In the arts, a schism developed between conservatives and innovators, between artists seeking to preserve their heritage in the face of rapid Westernization by following earlier precedents and those who advocated the reform of Chinese art through the adoption of foreign media and techniques.\^/

“As exemplified by Fu Baoshi (1904–1965) and Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), both of whom studied in Japan and traveled abroad late in their lives, some influential artists created hybrid styles that reflected a cosmopolitan attitude toward art and a willingness to modify inherited traditions through the incorporation of foreign idioms and techniques. Zhang, who became a leading connoisseur and collector, based his diverse painting styles on the firsthand study of early masterpieces, while Fu, an academic, learned about earlier works from reproductions and copies.\^/

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, cultural activities came under the control of the state. Seeking to reform traditional painting to make it "serve the people," the Communist government mandated that artists pursue a "revolutionary realism" that would celebrate the heroism of the common people or convey the majesty of the motherland. Taking the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union as orthodoxy, Chinese painters found a model among their own countrymen—emulating the Western-derived academic realism of Xu Beihong (1895–1953). Painting from life rather than copying ancient masterpieces became the principal source of inspiration for most artists. But excessive bureaucratic oversight and the shifting demands of politics often had a detrimental effect. The Communist party's effort to encourage plurality and free expression under the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1956–57, for example, was soon cut short by the antirightist purge of 1957; while the Great Leap Forward, of 1958–62, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, although intended to bring society into conformance with the party's progressive ideals, actually led to the persecution of many well-known artists and had a stultifying impact on creativity.\^/

Image Sources: 1) Mao and pre-Mao images: University of Washington. 2) Modern works: Saatchi Gallery, Goedhuis Contemporary Art and the websites of the artists.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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