Revolution is Sweeping China's Art World

Revolution is sweeping China's art world. In recent months, paintings extolling the communist victory of 1949 have emerged as the hottest genre in one of the world's most exuberant art scenes. With an economy growing at some 11 percent a year and a society morphing radically day by day, fascination with the birth of modern China is growing fast. In recent years, international collectors and critics have been much taken by new Chinese pop and avant-garde works featuring such notorious emblems of communism as red stars, Mao Zedong and People's Liberation Army soldiers. But Chinese collectors and serious connoisseurs are now becoming far more interested in slightly older works surrounding the creation of the People's Republic.

Indeed, China's red-hot art market is not cooling, but its prime objects of desire are changing fast. Today's biggest draws are paintings done in the realist style between the 1930s and the 1970s, from the time of the anti-Japanese movement led by the peasant-based Red Army to the period before Deng Xiaoping's liberalizing reforms. And they are fetching record prices. Just a few years ago, Chen Yifei's 1972 "Eulogy of the Yellow River," an elegant and very large work depicting a rifle-bearing Red Army soldier on a mountain bathed in golden light, was considered dowdy and kitsch. But at auction in May, after a fierce fight among various bidders, the 297cm-by-143cm piece fetched an eye-popping $5.16 million— setting a record as the most expensive oil painting ever sold in China. By contrast, a painting of the Three Gorges dam site by fortysomething artist Liu Xiaodong set the record for contemporary avant-garde art at $2.7 million last November. "Patriotic art is a very important theme in oil paintings," says Liu Gang, director of contemporary art at China Guardian, the influential Beijing auctioneer that handled the "Yellow River" sale. "We will certainly have this kind of work at our autumn auctions. The main attraction of these works is their inspiring subjects, which reveal the artist's love of nation and the people."

While the patriotic paintings merit attention as historical objects, they are primarily beloved for the passions they arouse. With the typical age of buyers starting at about 40, Liu says the works "easily resonate among people who have experienced wars or the Cultural Revolution." They seem to be nostalgic for an idealistic old China. And they've increasingly got money to invest; nouveau riche Chinese have become highly visible at home and abroad buying all kinds of art. Evelyn Lin, Sotheby's contemporary Chinese painting expert in Hong Kong, explains that while the realist style "is not so fresh" to the Western-trained eye, Chinese highly value what it represents. "It is more emotional," she says. "We know the stories." "Put Down Your Whip," for instance, is a 1939 realist ink work by Xu Beihong that portrays a famous actress in a scene from a renowned anti-Japanese play of the same title. Xu, widely regarded as the greatest master of his generation, died in 1953, and surely never imagined that his picture would sell for $9.2 million—as it did in April at Sotheby's in Hong Kong, setting the world record for the sale of a Chinese painting. It was purchased by a non-mainland collector, though Sotheby's won't say who or where.

Technically, the works are quite accomplished. Figures appear lifelike, often cast in romantic light. European and Soviet influences are clearly discernible even when subjects were uniquely Chinese. Indeed, many of the country's biggest names trained abroad. Xu, for example, studied in France at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. He and his creative peers in turn helped educate younger artists. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao's system marshaled the best artistic talents in China to serve politics. Many painters took on teaching jobs at state art institutes and lent their skills to glorifying communism, often in the form of propaganda material.

But little of it still exists as original paintings. Throughout China's history, artists and their works suffered during wars and political campaigns. In the case of modernist ink painter Lin Fengmian, soldiers ransacked his house and destroyed his works during the war with Japan in the 1930s. Then in 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was beginning, Lin destroyed all his paintings—done on rice paper—by soaking them in water and flushing them down the toilet in an effort to avoid persecution as an intellectual; later he was jailed and tortured anyway. Surviving art from that period tends to be in notoriously poor condition, further heightening demand for the precious few that are well preserved—and jacking up prices.

The art world will be watching closely this fall, when Sotheby's Hong Kong offers two unabashedly patriotic paintings as highlights of its October auction. Xu's 1935 "Crouching Lion" uses his signature animal symbolism to convey his belief in the Chinese nation's grand destiny over foreign powers; Sotheby's predicts the painting will fetch between $230,000 and $320,000. And "Father and Daughter," a 1939 work by Jiang Zhaohe that conveys the optimism of China's youth on the eve of the country's revolution, is estimated to go for somewhere between $10,250 and $15,400.

Though Sotheby's won't say when it expects the current records for patriotic art to be broken, collectors and critics outside China are clearly catching on to the trend. Catherine Kwai, managing director of Hong Kong's Kwai Fung Art Consultants, says some of her multinational investment-bank clients have begun asking her to look out for patriotic pieces to add to their corporate collections. In addition, she is in the process of helping an Italian museum stage an exhibit next year on Chinese realist masterpieces, which will include patriotism-themed paintings. She believes these kinds of paintings are among the most exciting for Chinese art collectors right now. "Behind these paintings there is so much to tell about the history of China," she says.

The fact that the works are straightforward and easy to understand only adds to their appeal. "Chinese still look at paintings for technique," says Kwai. "How lifelike is it? That is our training." As the mainland economy continues to prosper, novice collectors will keep rushing into the market, ensuring a bright future for the realist style. "This market will always be around," says Sotheby's Lin. "This will stay forever in China." That might be a particularly rosy prediction as tastes continue to evolve, but for now at least, patriotic art is enjoying its moment under the red, red sun.