Writing on the Wall

Chinese New Realism and Avant-garde in the eighties and nineties

23 March 2008 to 26 October 2008

Gradually taking shape after the death of Mao Zedong (1976) and the subsequent winding-down of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Realists and Avant-garde from the eighties and nineties formed the start of modern art in China. A knowledge of the Chinese Avant-garde is crucial in order to understand the present-day world of art in China.

After 1976, the painters who had been trained to produce social-realistic propaganda art for the benefit of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution seized the opportunity to give more relevant content to the realistic style of their work, presenting a critical reflection on the previous period and displaying the spirit of the new era (so-called ‘Scar painting’ and ‘Rustic painting’). Important representatives in this development were Luo Zhongli, Chen Danqing, Ai Xuan, He Duoling.

In addition, countless Avant-garde artistic movements and groups appeared which, inspired by Western theories and movements, took a completely different path. They began to experiment with all possible materials and forms to articulate their ideas. This work contained mainly critical, ironic or sarcastic observations about the ruling regime, and was scarcely tolerated. The most prominent group within this movement was undoubtedly the ‘Stars group’, whose most important representatives were Wang Kepin, Huan Rui, Ma Desheng, and Ai Weiwei. The many artists’ groups from the early eighties formed the breeding ground for the ‘New Wave’ or ’85-Movement’ which arose in the mid-eighties.

However, many currently internationally renowned artists had to flee the country under pressure from the regime, after which only a few returned to inspire a new generation (such as Ai Weiwei for example). The ‘New Wave’ ended with the dramatic exhibition entitled China Avant-garde in the National Gallery of Art in Beijing in 1989. In the nineties, despite the repression, a new generation took the opportunity to present its view on the furious economic and social developments taking place in the country. Three broad movements can be distinguished: Cynical Realism, Political Pop, and Kitsch Art. Furthermore, Performance Art has also become an important means of expressing aspects such as physical ordeal and personal identity, both as a comment and as a provocative statement directed toward the ruling regime. The exhibition will present an overview of this development by means of video and photography.

This exhibition was the first time that attention was devoted within a single exhibition to both Chinese New Realism and Avant-garde art of the eighties and nineties. Much of the work on display had never been shown outside China, or even shown since the early eighties.

Participants The exhibition presents work by: Ai Xuan, Chen Danqing, Chen Yanning, Ding Yi, Fang Lijun, Gao Xiaohua, Geng Jianyi, He Duoling, Huang Rui, Liu Wei, Liu Xiaodong, Ma Desheng, Wang Guangyi, Wang Jinsong, Wang Keping, Wen Pulin, Wenda Gu, Xu Bing, Yang Shaobin, Yu Youhan, Yue Minyun, Zhang Peili, Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Dali.

  • He Duoling en Ai Xuan: The Third Generation. Private Collection