Sketching & Socialist Realist Painting in the Early People’s Republic of China


A review of Drawing from Life: Mass Sketching and the Formation of Socialist Realist Guohua in the Early People’s Republic of China (1949-1965), by Christine I. Ho.

Christine Ho’s dissertation is a study of how a new emphasis on the practice of sketching from life impacted the development of Chinese ink painting (guohua 国画) in the early People’s Republic of China (PRC). This new value placed on drawing what one saw before one’s eyes grew out of the increasing influence that European art training (and its reliance on life drawing) had had on Chinese artists in the early twentieth century. But it intensified in the 1950s, when the Soviet art education system was officially taken as the model for art academies in China, and Socialist Realism was chosen as the preferred artistic style. The new sketching practices were meant to impact both the art produced (in form and content) and the ideological development of the artists themselves.

Ho studies the impact of this sketching practice on guohua by examining the drawings produced by artists during various sketching tours and then analyzing how those images reflect the influence of certain art theories and sociopolitical movements. In the Introduction, Ho discusses the historical, cultural, linguistic, and ideological context in which this new approach to sketching was introduced. Specifically, she describes 1) how new art practices, such as sketching, were introduced in an attempt to find ways to both create and image the new socialist culture, 2) how guohua was used as a marker of national, “Chinese” culture but also dehistoricized in order to distance it from its ideologically problematic past, and 3) what “sketching” (xiesheng 写生) as it was practiced in the early PRC actually meant and involved. Ho then organizes the five main chapters of her dissertation around five groups of sketching tours that provide a framework for discussing various issues related to early-PRC sketching practice. The chapters are divided into two major sections: Part I, “Sketching Concepts” (Chapters 1-3), examines the changing ways drawing was conceptualized and described; Part II, “Socialist Landscape” (Chapters 4 and 5), explores how landscape-sketching tours were employed in two different contexts.

Chapter 1 is an overview of how sketching practices arose from the new Chinese art pedagogy that had been adapted from Soviet sources. Drawing was newly emphasized in the Chinese art curriculum and was explicitly tied not to personal expression but to rationality. It was viewed as a technique that enabled an artist to see the world as it was. Ho discusses Xu Beihong’s role in promoting drawing and ties it to his interest in the plastic arts (zaoxing 造型). Drawing pedagogy in China was primarily based on the Russian Chistiakov system, a prescriptive system that was based on scientific investigation but allowed for personal expression in advanced work. Ho then describes the debates that occurred over the relationship between rational depiction of visual details and expression of larger concepts, which then fed into debates about whether this new drawing pedagogy could be applied to guohua, and whether guohua instruction should involve practices based in native, Chinese tradition. Ho ends the chapter with an examination of early sketching tours in the suburbs of Beijing undertaken by Li Keran, who is labeled the “forefather of the mass sketching movement” (p.88).

Chapter 2 examines how the practice of sketching that had developed through wartime reporting was further transformed by the depiction of reconstruction projects during the early years of the PRC. The wartime reportage sketches consisted primarily of images from the frontlines and images of the borderlands. The formal tools developed in the war period were then applied to sketches of reconstruction projects (jianshe xiesheng 建设写生) in the postrevolution period. These sketches were meant to show the beneficial development made possible by the joint efforts of the Communist leadership and empowered human beings. Ho begins with an examination of the wartime sketching tours of Guan Shanyue and Zhao Wangyun, which resulted in sketches of simple but useful technology that could serve as a foundation for further development of the nation. Reconstruction sketches from the 1950s were different from their wartime antecedents, celebrating the high level of technological achievement evident in new building projects and focusing on what had been accomplished rather than what had not yet been achieved. Ho identifies such changes in the post-revolution sketches of Guan Shanyue and Li Xiongcai depicting reconstruction after the Wuhan Flood of 1954.

Chapter 3 considers how sketching came to be understood as a form of revolutionary praxis in the post-revolutionary period. The sketching tours in the early PRC were informed by an approach to sketching that had been developed during wartime at Yan’an, where artists combined outdoor sketching with social engagement with the local people and thus developed a practice that could transform the thinking of both groups of people. The Yan’an approach was continued in the early 1950s with the use of artists in the Land Reform campaign. Artists’ physical involvement in the campaign would lead to their own ideological transformation, which was necessary for them to produce guohua that could truly serve the needs of the people in a socialist society. Sketching was not just the act of copying but involved the expression of a deep understanding of the people and places being depicted and of the purpose of the revolution itself. The close connection between sketching and the reeducation of the artist is evidenced by the 23,000 km sketching tour taken by the Jiangsu Provincial Paining Academy in 1960. Paintings exhibited by members of the Academy in 1958 had been judged too removed from the lived experience of what they were depicting, so the long sketching tour was undertaken to increase the painters’ lived experience of the new China outside the Academy. The chapter ends with an analysis of the conceptual development evident in the sketches Fu Baoshi produced on this tour, the most complete group of sketches surviving from the trip.

Chapters 4 and 5 examine two thematic uses of landscape sketching – one that focused on the modern revolutionary history of China and one that sought to position Chinese art practice in the global socialist sphere. Chapter 4 focuses on images of China’s recent military history. The chapter begins with a discussion of a group of sketches of the Long March that originally had been published anonymously in 1938. They were rediscovered in 1958, but the artist, Huang Zhen, was not identified until 1961. Ho argues that this set of images, particularly because they initially circulated anonymously, can be understood as a “depiction of history through mass experience” (p. 189). Much of the value placed on the many reproductions of these sketches arose from their status as records of the artist’s actual lived experience of the Long March, and through mass reproduction these depictions of one man’s experience came to represent a communal memory. State commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Long March spurred the organization of Long March sketching tours to produce images that would become part of the masses’ communal memory of the March. The Culture Department also used these tours to engage guohua artists in military history. In 1955, Dong Xiwen accompanied a crew that was traveling to several famous Long March sites to film Ten Thousand Rivers and Mountains (released in 1959). He then published and exhibited the sketches he had made during the tour and created a painting based on them. The hardship Dong experienced while traveling with the film crew was seen as essential to helping him understand the struggles of the soldiers on the Long March and then accurately convey their lived experience of history in his images. However, Ho examines how the sketches and painting show Dong’s struggle to integrate the natural reality of the landscape he saw in 1955 and the historical reality he was tasked to represent. Ho sees in the images both the present and the past, reality and myth – what she calls “the duality of socialist time” (p. 215). At the chapter’s end, Ho describes another Long March sketching tour, one conducted in 1957 and involving thirty-two Beijing artists. Their final product was the collective handscroll painting Ten Thousand Li of the Long March. Ho argues that this sketching tour “mirrored the historical experience of the Long March as it was interpreted in the post-revolutionary period…the accretive process of the collective work assimilated heterogeneous voices within a complete work of collective memory” (p.220).

Chapter 5 studies the travel of several Chinese artists to other socialist states. These trips were diplomatic in nature; the artists lectured about Chinese art and demonstrated their own artistic practices in addition to viewing and learning about the art of the places they visited. Artists from other socialist countries made similar trips to China. This cultural exchange was a facet of socialist cosmopolitanism, an attempt to show that socialist culture was both global and local, a unified phenomenon that also allowed for national and individual variation. Producing sketches was a common activity for artists (not just Chinese artists) while on these trips. They were a way to quickly produce visual records of their travels. In this chapter, Ho studies the sketches produced by Chinese artists on several different trips. She examines the sketches of industry and the local people that Guan Shanyue produced in Poland (1956). She also briefly discusses a later trip Guan made to Western Europe (1958-59), when he criticized modernism (both in sketches and later in writing) for its formal characteristics and its connection to capitalism. On a trip to East Germany (1957), Li Keran was able to view paintings by Rembrandt, an artist praised as a forerunner to Socialist Realism. Ho examines how the sketches Li produced on that trip reflected the influence of Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro and sculptural effects. During a trip to Czechoslovakia and Romania (1957), Fu Baoshi produced the largest body of outdoor sketches of his career. Ho contrasts the placelessness of Fu’s quick sketches with his attempts to depict specific places in his more restrained paintings based on the sketches.

A final Epilogue then briefly investigates a particular sketching tour taken by Fu Baoshi and Guan Shanyue in China’s northeast in 1961. Ho focuses especially on a painting produced by Fu Baoshi as a result of this sketching tour: Sea of Trees by Heavenly Lake. She argues that although this painting has been described as apolitical (because of its appearance) it was still the result of a sketching movement that was strongly supported by the government, and Fu’s description of his experience of conceiving the painting suggests that the sketching movement had actually been successful in reforming his thinking and behavior. The political nature of this art movement is evident not primarily in the formal qualities of the artworks produced but in a set of concerns with which the movement engaged: “the anti-academic impulse, authentic access and experience, modes of equality in participation, [and] an emphasis on processual and conceptual development” (p. 275).

Ho’s dissertation is a valuable addition to the study of twentieth-century Chinese art. The focus on sketching practices rather than final guohua works helps to reveal the underlying issues with which the artists and the art bureaucracy were grappling in the early years of the PRC. It enables a close examination of how the process of producing art was co-opted as a means to mold the thinking of artists, a subset of intellectuals. This study brings to light artists’ sketches, which have so far received scant attention in art historical studies of the Chinese art of this period. Ho also provides an in-depth examination of some of the artistic discussion and debates that occurred in Chinese journals in the 1950s. Although Ho concentrates her dissertation on guohua artists, the practice of sketching from life (and the underlying push to directly experience the depicted activities and conditions) was encouraged for artists working in a variety of media. This study will be of interest to scholars, especially art historians, working on the early PRC, but it should also be of interest to those studying art produced in other socialist states in the twentieth century. Ho’s work is a significant contribution to the investigation of the creation of a multi-national socialist culture.

Sonja Kelley
Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Maryland Institute College of Art

Primary Sources
Beijing Painting Academy
Guan Shanyue Art Museum
Nanjing Museum
Meishu 美术

Dissertation Information
Stanford University. 2014. 381 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard Vinograd.

Image: Ao Enhong, Spring Returns to the Land, Seize the Brushes, photograph. People’s Pictorial 1958, no. 1, unpaginated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like