June 06, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *mao-market* China's brand: Pictures of Mao

iht, MAY 31, 2006
China's brand: Pictures of Mao
By David Barboza The New York Times

SHANGHAI Few images created in the last century are as recognizable as
the official portrait of Mao Zedong that looms over Tiananmen Square in

For decades, the 4.5-by-6 meter, or 15-by-20-foot, oil painting has
served as a national icon. This is the same image that, in the 1960s and
70s, was widely reproduced and hung near the entrances to millions of
homes, schools, factories and government buildings.

During the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was raised to cult status, it
seemed as if the entire nation had set about drawing a Mao portrait, or
at least honoring one. If Mao's Little Red Book was the national bible,
Mao's official portrait was the national stamp.

And while people in China seem to have lost some affection for Mao, and
even protested in 1989 by splattering his Tiananmen portrait with paint,
his image still represents something indelible and intangible, experts say.

"This is the most important painting in China," said Professor Wu Hung,
an art historian at the University of Chicago. "This is not an artistic
judgment. But look at how many people have seen this image over the last

Mao's image may also be considered the first and only Chinese global
brand. Even though China is a rising economic power, it still does not
have a BMW or a Coca-Cola to sell to the rest of the world.

But it does have Mao - a kind of George Washington, James Dean and Che
Guevara wrapped in one; a historic and pop figure who continues to be
hip and fashionable, even when communism and the Communist Party are not.

And so it is no surprise that a firestorm erupted in China a little over
a week ago after a state-controlled Beijing auction house wheeled out an
old official portrait of Mao, owned by a Chinese-American, and said it
would sell the piece to the highest bidder on June 3.

Huachen Auction said the small portrait, dating from the 1950s or '60s,
was painted by Zhang Zhenshi, one of first official portrait makers of
Mao and the artist credited with the model for the painting that hangs
in Tiananmen Square.

After critics on the Internet in China lashed out at the planned sale,
Huachen withdrew the item, saying the government had intervened and
"suggested" the work be placed in a national museum.

But the controversy raised some intriguing questions. Who actually
painted Mao's official portrait? And why is it still up in the square,
when many Chinese seem more eager to buy Gucci bags than Mao suits?

Some of the answers can be found in Wu's book "Remaking Beijing," which
says Mao's image, like the socialist state, was actually created by

Nor was it the first such portrait to hang in Beijing. A large one of
Sun Yat- sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, was raised in the
square after his death in 1925. And the image of Chiang Kai-shek, leader
of the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, was hung there in 1945.

Mao's portrait appeared in 1949, after the Communists assumed power.
First, a hastily sketched portrait was hung in February of that year.

Then, on Oct. 1, when Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic
of China from the rostrum at Tiananmen Gate, an official portrait, based
on a photograph, showed Mao wearing an octagonal cap and coarse woolen

The cap-wearing Mao did not last long. A year later, 30 artists were
asked to create a new image, and Zhang, a teacher at the Beijing Art
Institute, was named the official portrait maker.

From 1950 to about 1964, Zhang painted Mao's Tiananmen portrait, based
on official photographs, often with the help of artists who were
supposed to be anonymous.

The portrait evolved over time. Mao in an army cap gave way to Mao's
sideways glance, which was replaced by the now standard Mao frontal
pose, with his eyes peering directly at viewers. An early piece was
criticized because Mao appeared to be looking away from - possibly
ignoring - the masses.

Historians say that in the 1950s or 60s, Zhang created the standard
image, based on a photograph of Mao in his trademark gray suit. And by
1967, when the Cultural Revolution was under way, a final tweak had been
added: The painting showed both of Mao's ears, rather than just one,
proof that he was listening to all the people and not just a select few.

The artists, Wu said, were not supposed to be creative, but merely
render the image from carefully selected photographs.

"If you emphasized the artist, then it would be a work of art," Wu said.
"That was not the intention."

Over the years, the painted Mao has aged, appeared grim, taken on a
fatherly look, and even shown a faint smile. At some point, the shadow
on his face was reduced.

Since 1949 there have only been four official portrait artists, but many
unofficial contributors, like Wang Qizhi, now in his late 70s, who said
in an interview last week that he had worked for over 20 years on
portraits of Mao, leaving few records.

"The old canvas was reused by putting on white paint to cover the
previous painting," Wang said. "One piece of canvas was used five or six
times. When it became too thick to paint, people pulled off the canvas
and put on a new one."

Apparently, Mao's colorful oil portrait came down only once, briefly,
after his death in 1976, when it was replaced by a huge black-and-white
photograph, a sign of mourning.

Why has the image not come down since? Some believe that such a move
would signal the demise of the party. Others say the portrait is a
cultural relic.

"It's a very complex image," said Wu, who grew up near Beijing. "It has
different meanings to different people. To the party, it symbolizes the
party and the nation's founding. But to a lot of people it symbolizes
China, or it has very personal memories."

That is one reason Mao's official image has changed mostly in subtle ways.

Beyond Tiananmen Square, however, artists have experimented more freely,
and after Mao's death, some played with his once-sacred image. Wang
Keping attracted international attention in 1979 by carving a wooden
image of a Buddha-faced Mao called "Idol."

In the 1980s, Wang Guangyi dissected Mao by putting him behind bars, or
a large grid. Li Shan put a flower and lipstick on him. Gao Qiang made
him look sickly, swimming in a blood-red Yangtze River.

But Mao's defenders are never far behind. Zhang's painting of Mao is no
longer up for auction, thanks to government intervention.

And several weeks ago, when Gao's sickly Mao was raised in an exhibition
space in the trendy Beijing area of Dashanzi, the police showed up. They
had the image removed. Officially, there is still only one Mao, and he
is still the national icon.




with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



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