Dong Xiwen was one of the most renowned yet controversial figures in recent Chinese art history. Born in 1914, Dong enjoyed success during the 1950s but his artistic career ended prematurely when, in 1973, he died of cancer at the age of 59. This recent exhibition at Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) Art Museum in Beijing celebrated what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday and provided a rare survey of more than 128 pieces from throughout his career. Included were various groups of sketches, watercolours on wood and oil paintings of everything from intimate portraits of family members and scenes of the Red Army engaged in historic battles, to sites along the route of the Long March, which took place in the mid-1930s, and local figures and landscapes in Tibet. Also shown were many rarely seen works from the artist’s family collection, including fine examples of Dong’s free and adept experimentations in painting, incorporating techniques and themes borrowed from various Chinese artistic traditions.
Born in Shaoxing, Dong had a complicated career, which echoed that of many intellectuals and artists of his generation, who faced an era of turmoil and internal political crisis after the end of imperial rule and the fiercely contested birth of communist China. Dong’s father worked at a pawn shop and assembled a rich collection of Chinese antiquities, which formed the artist’s initial aesthetic education. As a result, Dong acquired a sophisticated understanding and deep appreciation of traditional Chinese art forms. In the artist’s home in Beijing, he kept a porcelain vase from the Song Dynasty that was decorated with flowers painted in freehand brushwork, a traditional technique that Dong often used in his own work.
During the 1930s, he attended the art academies in Suzhou and Shanghai, where he was a student of artists such as Yan Wenliang, Chang Shuhong and Lin Fengmian, all of whom had studied in France. Dong also spent three years in Dunhuang in northwestern China, between 1943–45. There, he copied the mural paintings inside the Mogao Caves: beautiful examples of Buddhist art, some of which date back over 1,000 years. The use of exuberant colour and the vivid depiction of human figures in these works had a profound influence on the artist’s oil painting.
Dong joined the Communist Party in 1949 and was soon assigned the task of creating what would turn out to be his most famous work, The Founding Ceremony of the Nation, an oil painting depicting Mao Zedong announcing the birth of the new nation from a rostrum in Tiananmen Square. In this piece, the artist applied various treatments of background composition and colour, from Chinese ink wash painting to techniques used in the Duhuang cave paintings. He became a household name when it was publicly unveiled in 1953, which marked the height of his artistic career. Just a few years later, Dong would find himself and his vision for creating a distinctly Chinese style of oil painting marginalized as the Communist Party continued to consolidate its power and gradually established Soviet Realism as its aesthetic signature. Ironically, during the anti-rightist movements of the late 1950s, Dong was accused of being a ‘white expert’ – a term coined by the Communist regime to criticize those who weren’t sufficiently ‘red’, such as skilled artists who showed little enthusiasm for instrumentalizing their work as political propaganda.
Because of this, Dong’s artistic achievements have historically been undervalued. People have tended to dismiss and even stigmatize him as politically compromised. The Founding Ceremony of the Nation was revised, on official orders, four times (although only by Dong himself on the first two occasions). In the first three revisions, party members who had fallen out of favour were painted out; the work was finally returned to its original state in 1967, after the Cultural Revolution. In the CAFA exhibition, images of all four versions were presented alongside a reproduction of the original painting. This telling sequence, and the chance to revisit Dong’s prolific practice despite his chequered career, offered valuable insights into the internal conflicts faced by artists in the period between the formation of the People’s Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution, and demonstrates a singular, important resistance to the period’s dominant style of Socialist Realism.
First published in Issue 169