Eugen Popa, On the Bridge, Ink & Watercolour, 1962

Global Art Exchange and Modernism in Socialist China (1949-1979)

社会主义中国的艺术交流和现代主义 (1949-1979)

October 30, 2020
October 31, 2020

Registration Required  

The plight of art and culture in socialist China (1949-1979) has long been perceived as bleak, monolithic and isolated, characterized by a closed aesthetic and repressive political system that demanded only “socialist realism.” Yet recent archival discoveries and scholarship have unearthed some fascinating interactions in contemporary art history that challenge and dismantle the simplistic, Cold War-influenced narratives of East-West dichotomy and capitalist modernism v. socialist realism.

This workshop is the most recent event in the series “Art and Modernism in Socialist China,” an international cooperative research and publication project launched in 2017 at Taikang Space, Beijing. It focuses on global exchanges among left-wing artists and their impacts on Chinese art during the most rigid period of Socialist China. From artistic exchanges with Latin America to the Romanian school in Chinese art education; from discreet international exhibitions in China to underground artist groups during the Cultural Revolution; together the panelists present a complex contemporary Chinese art history, in which artists thirsted after alternative aesthetic inspiration, and international cultural dialogues continued amidst revolutionary turmoil, albeit in discreet and distorted guises. They reveal a surprising variety of intellectual origins and foreign influences on Chinese socialist modernism, and deepen our understanding of the crucial impact of human exchanges on art and agency in the socialist period.

Workshop Program

Day 1 - Friday, October 30, 2020

5:00pm - 9:00pm

Chair: Julia F. Andrews, Distinguished University Professor, Ohio State University

Opening remarks by Shengtian Zheng, Adjunct Director of the Institute of Asian Art, Vancouver Art Gallery, Research Fellow at Simon Fraser University

Chile, China, Cuba: A Mural and Beyond

5:15pm - 5:45pm

Presenter: Shengtian Zheng, Adjunct Director of the Institute of Asian Art, Vancouver Art Gallery, Research Fellow at Simon Fraser University

Discussant: Claire Roberts, Associate Professor of Art History in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne


Chilean artist José Venturelli (1925-1988) first arrived in Beijing in 1952 as a delegate of the Pacific Asia Peace Conference, recommended by his friend Pablo Neruda. From 1953 he served as the deputy secretary general of this organization and stationed in Beijing. As an artist he was offered a studio and teaching opportunity at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Living in the Capital for almost a decade, Venturelli was commonly recognized as the cultural ambassador of Latin America to PRC.

Venturelli also experienced the early years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, by frequently visiting Havana and collaborating with the new cultural administration from 1960 to 1966. While in Cuba, Venturelli was commissioned by Che Guevara to create a large-scale mural "Camilo Cienfuegos" commemorating the revolutionary leader who died in a plane crash in 1959. Back to Beijing Venturelli held an exhibition in November 1962 showing the drawings and photos of this mural. The show had great success and left a tremendous influence on Chinese art in late years.

This paper will examine how a mural had connected Latin America with China and introduced not only the revolutionary spirit but also the modernist approach to Chinese artists. This amazing story made a perfect example of a cross-culture dialogue that had a significant effect on the subsequent developments of Chinese art.

Beyond Castiglione: Post-WWII Sino-Italian Artistic Exchange

5:45pm - 6:15pm

Presenter: Yang Wang, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Colorado

Discussant: Tao Cai, Associate Professor, School of Arts and Humanities, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts


In spring 1956, six Italian artists affiliated with the Italian Communist Party arrived in China for an official month-long visit during which they toured several cities and met with notable artists like Qi Baishi and Wu Zuoren. As scholars of China, we tend to focus on the impact of foreign visitors on Chinese art. This particular historical moment, however, offers a case study that also considers the reversal: the impact of China on the visitors as the they all attested to the importance of the trip. Aligi Sassu, Antonietta Raphael Mafai, Agenore Fabbri, Giulio Turcato, Tono Zancanaro, and Ampelio Tettamanti are not household names; in fact, these artists belong to a period in Italian art history that is largely overlooked within global postwar modernism. The historical gap between Futurism and Arte Provera reveals a vacuum in our understanding of twentieth-century Italian art with implications for how global modernism is visually and ideologically recognized.

This paper will examine works of art and archival materials, and ask: what does this fleeting moment of contact inform us about the art worlds of China and Italy, and about the currency of art in the postwar era? The conceptual schism between the abstract forms of the leftist Italian artists and the preferred realist styles of their Chinese hosts challenges anchors of postwar dichotomies that produce binary classifications based on political thought or formal styles. This ongoing project will analyze these tensions while placing this historical episode into the broader context of Chinese cultural diplomacy in the Maoist period.

A Cancelled Graduation Exhibition: A Study on the Formation and Influence of the Romanian School in Chinese Art Education

6:15pm – 6:45pm

Presenter: Nan Ma, Curator, Head of Department of Curation, Research and International Exchange, Art Museum of China Academy of Art

Discussant: Shengtian Zheng, Adjunct Director of the Institute of Asian Art, Vancouver Art Gallery


Romanian artist Eugen Popa’s oil painting course at Zhejiang Art Academy (now China Academy of Art) was one of the few cases of international exchanges in art education initiated officially by the Chinese government after 1949. However, due to various reasons, the event appeared underwhelming at the time. Professor Popa’s arrival was highly anticipated, yet not well received – China was still recovering from the Great Famine; tension between China and the Soviet Union was mounting; the self-censorship and reformation in art academies were critical, and above all, Eugen Popa’s modernist method of teaching cast  a shadow in China due to its deviation from the dominant doctrine of Russian Social Realism. At the end of the course training, the class graduation was silenced without even a proper exhibition. Nevertheless, during their stay, Eugen Popa and his wife Gina Hagiu established deep friendship with traditional Chinese artists Pan Tianshou, Guan Liang and Beijing Opera actor Gai Jiaotian, which left mutual influences on both sides. And through his students, Popa's pedagogy was passed down and even helped the emergence of a new generation of contemporary Chinese artists. By looking into newly discovered and disclosed archives, art works, and interviews, this essay attempts to reconstruct this special moment of modern art education in China, and to investigate the coincidental yet inevitable impact of the Romanian School of oil painting in China.


6:45pm – 7:00pm

Creating A New Era of 20th Century”: Huang Binhong (1865-1955) and Modern Art during the Cold War

7:00pm – 7:30pm

Presenter: Zaixin Hong, Professor of Chinese Art History, University of Puget Sound

Discussant: Nan Ma, Curator, Head of Department of Curation, Research and International Exchange, Art Museum of China Academy of Art


Two months before his death, Huang Binhong wrote three letters to his Chinese friends. In one letter, he recalled his art exchange with foreign contacts such as Carlo Zanon from Italy, Victoria Contag from West Germany, Lucy Driscoll from Chicago, U.S., in concurrence with peoples from the Socialist “union like India, Democratic Germany, Romania, Czech, and Poland” mentioned in the other two. No artist in the early years of the People’s Republic of China was as resourceful and contemplative as Huang was in hosting a continuous dialogue with modern art movements worldwide. The breadth and depth of his global networking during the Cold War validated what he had accomplished both as a Professor of Guohua (National-Style Painting) at China Art Academy in Hangzhou and as the “Excellent Painter of Chinese People” honored by the Southeast People’s Government of mainland China. Serendipitously, in Chinese Art  in the Twentieth Century, the first English book of its kind appeared in 1959, Huang’s former contact Michael Sullivan chose his expressive abstract style landscape painting as its frontispiece to champion Chinese modernism in order to create, using his final written words, “a new era of 20th century”.

How could Huang, who has been revered as a traditionalist for nearly a century, carry on the grand dialogue with modernists from both Socialist and Capitalist countries? Modernism is a prevalent movement of world art history in the 20th century when Chinese painting as a special commodity became widely available for a global trade. In this paper, we will examine his astonishing yet little-explored art exchanges between the two opposed geopolitical camps during the Cold War in a cross-contextual paradigm. As a result, the dialogue on modernism between Huang Binhong and his contemporaries both at home and abroad will unfold an extraordinary chapter of modern art at the peak of its heyday.

Boundary Crossing - Ye Qianyu and Dai Ailian

7:30pm – 8:00pm

Presenter: Claire Roberts, Associate Professor of Art History in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

Discussant: Yang Wang, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Colorado


In 1946-7 Ye Qianyu (1907-1995) and his Trinidadian-Chinese wife, the dancer Dai Ailian (1916-2006) spent a year in the United States of America as guests of the State Department. The best-known document of their trip is Tiantang ji, ‘A Record of Paradise’ (Tiantang ji), a picture-story narrative published as a serial in the Beiping newspaper Xinmin bao in 1948. Earlier, Ye Qianyu played a key role in the creation and production of influential illustrated magazines such as Shanghai Sketch (Shanghai manhua) and Modern Miscellany (Shidai huabao). After their return to China Ye was appointed head of the Chinese e painting department at the Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing and Dai Ailian became the founding director of the Beijing Dance School. This paper will consider the creative partnership of Ye Qianyu and Dai Ailian, the time they spent in America, and their place in Socialist Modernism.

“Pictorial Diary” in the South: Tan Huamu’s Painting in the New China Period

8:00pm - 8:30pm

Presenter: Tao Cai, Associate Professor, School of Arts and Humanities, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts

Discussant: Zaixin Hong, Professor of Chinese Art History, University of Puget Sound


In 1956, the painter Tan Huamu who had studied in Japan returned to Guangzhou from Macau and joined the Guangzhou Branch of the China Artists Association. Since then, he spent the last two decades of his life in this southern city. During that time, the artist reflected upon and sketched the scenery around him day after day, and he eventually painted a large number of sketches, and a few of them developed into oil paintings to be included in official exhibitions. On the back of many sketches, the artist marked the date of the painting. This research regards the paintings as a “pictorial diary” created by the artist in a specific political time and space. The “pictorial diary”, which spans about 12 years, reflects his attention to mundane affairs and social events, as well as the artistic instinct of the modern painter who lived in the alleyways of the South. These new landscapes pulsate with the times in the humid air of the south, express a sense of warm humor from time to time, and reveal the organic connection between nature, the world and the new era, as well as the mental state of a hermit.



Day 2 - Saturday, October 31, 2020

8:00am - 12:00pm

Chair: Julia Orell, Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art & Theory, University of British Columbia

Never forget Mao: the Monumental as Radical Universal?

8:00am – 8:30am

Presenter: Barbara Mittler, Chair in Chinese Studies, University of Heidelberg

Discussant: Nicolai Volland, Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature, Penn State University


In socialist countries like China, monuments of political icons, strategically placed and landscaped, with ideological and psychological as well as aesthetic considerations, are ubiquitous and universal—they are to be seen everywhere. It would be rare never to have encountered such heroic monumental presence. The statue of the iconic leader is undoubtedly one of the most significant elements in the formal repertoires artists have developed in their engagement with socialism. Yet, how to deal with the socialist hero once he dies and falls from grace? Stalin’s statues are dismantled in a series of dramatic performances, Chiang Kai- shek’s are relegated to large memorial parks. Mao’s, on the other hand, have stayed to grow—in numbers, in size and in material variety and social use—and thus, have become ever more visible, tangible, sensible and tactile than before.

This paper will explore some of the particular qualities of post-Maoist monumentality. It will show how the formal sensorium of the iconic images of Mao registers, reflects and embodies the pressures of historical actuality. I will argue that China probably never (can and will) forget Mao, and that this is why artists, writers as well as politicians and the common people—in China as well as abroad—keep fashioning ever new and ever more monumental molds for him.

Realism or Modernism? Exhibitions of Sesshū in Japan and China in 1956

8:30am - 9:00am

Presenter: Effie Yin, Assistant Professor, Ringling College of Art and Design

Discussant: Yuning Teng, Deputy Director of Centre for Visual Studies, Peking University


Exhibitions of paintings by Japanese artist Sesshū Toyo (1420–1506?) took place in both Japan and China in 1956. Sesshū’s works were first exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum in April and May. Subsequently, China’s official art establishment decided to hold an exhibition of fifty replicas of Sesshū’s paintings at the Art Gallery of the Chinese Artists Association in Beijing that August. Both Japanese and Chinese media reported the exhibitions enthusiastically. Chinese artists and scholars emphasized the realism in Sesshū’s art. However, some Japanese critics highlighted his paintings’ “modern meanings” and argued that Sesshū’s art was related to terms such as “modernity.”

By delving into artistic exchange between China and Japan in the 1950s, this article challenges the mainstream dichotomy between realism and modernism in the art world of Socialist China. By examining Chinese and Japanese newspaper reports, journal articles, and exhibition catalogues, this essay addresses the political and cultural circumstances under which these two art events were held, explores the way in which the Beijing exhibition was transformed from the Tokyo exhibition, and analyzes the interpretation, agenda, and influence of these two events. I further suggest that the exhibitions of Sesshū’s paintings, along with other exhibitions of Japanese art in the late 1950s, opened a small window of an alternative modernism for Chinese artists and audiences, even though it was covered with a curtain named realism.

A Challenge to Socialist Realism:  Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Others in an Unknown 1960 Exhibition in China

9:00am - 9:30am

Presenter: Yuning Teng, Deputy Director of Centre for Visual Studies, Peking University

Discussant: Barbara Mittler, Chair in Chinese Studies, University of Heidelberg


Influenced by a Cold War mentality, the 1950s in China saw a distinct polar opposition of ideology between socialism and capitalism, forming a simple narration for the relationships of socialist China in an international context. China in the 1950s has always been narrated in a historical perspective in terms of the socialist revolution, but on looking at this period more carefully, one discovers that many unusual details have been ignored, never thoroughly researched, or, indeed, ever mentioned.

An exhibition Seventy years of British oil painting (英国近七十年油画展览) coming to China in 1960 is one of these curious, forgotten events. It was a large retrospective consisted of 71 paintings by 65 British artists, as well as a contemporary exhibition reflecting achievements of British art from 1883 to 1959, introducing British Impressionism as well as new artistic trends. It is astonishing that many representative painters of Impressionism, Expressionism and even abstract art, such as the contributions by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Rodrigo Moynihan, Paul Feiler, Alan Reynolds, William Scott and Ceri Richards, had already been introduced in the People’s Republic much earlier than previously thought.

This British exhibition provides ample cause to challenge common conceptions concerning the cultural conditions in China in the 1950s and 1960s. How could it happen? What was the aim of this exhibition and how did Chinese audiences respond at that time? These questions may serve as the basis for exploring a new angle on the »real« socialist China.


9:30am – 9:45am

Socialist Graphic Novels: Soviet Literature for Chinese Readers

9:45am – 10:15am

Presenter: Nicolai Volland, Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature, Penn State University

Discussant: Shuyu Kong, Professor of Humanities and co-Director of David Lam Centre, Simon Fraser University


After the revolution of 1949, the young PRC embarked on a decade-long effort to “learn from the Soviet Union.” As part of this massive campaigns, hundreds of Soviet novels were translated into Chinese and printed in millions of copies. Much less known, however, are adaptations of these literary works into other genres, including film, theater, and especially graphic novels (lianhuanhua). This paper investigates Chinese graphic novels based on some of the most popular works of Soviet literature, arguing that the intersection of the transcultural and the transgenre played a key role in popularizing Soviet socialist realist literature in China. While graphic novels were all but unknown in Soviet Russia, the quintessentially Chinese genre of lianhuanhua was booming in the late 1940s and the 1950s. The emergence of graphic novel versions of a major Soviet author hence represents the marriage of foreign literary styles and themes with a familiar domestic genre and format. Adaptation processes of this kind, however, are inherently uneven and contain moments of selection, interpretation, and intervention. It is precisely the double-translation—between languages and between genres—that, I will shows, afforded the Chinese producers of these graphic novels agency, allowing them to reshape these Soviet imports in decisive and sometimes unpredictable directions.

Modernist Undercurrents in Socialist Art Education

10:15am – 10:45am

Presenter: Juliane Noth, Heisenberg Fellow, University of Hamburg and Research Professor of China Institute for Visual Studies, China Academy of Art

Discussant: Effie Yin, Assistant Professor, Ringling College of Art and Design


Rather than presenting results of extensive research, I will discuss some preliminary thoughts about a possible research agenda on modernist undercurrents in socialist art education, and I look forward to hearing the other participants’ comments and suggestions. My point of departure will be an interview I conducted with Jin Yide (b. 1935), retired professor of the oil painting department at the China Art Academy (CAA). After his graduation in 1959, he first served as the assistant of Ni Yide (1901–1970), and later he was one of the students in the training class of the Romanian painter Eugen Popa (1919–1996) from 1960    to 1962. Both of these older painters emphasized aspects in their teaching that differ from the Soviet model in art education and painting methods and that link back to early to mid-twentieth century modernism. The experiences of Jin Yide show that besides the implementation of the Soviet model, other, more expressive and individualist modes of painting and sketching were still practiced at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the CAA). I will discuss how the influences and teaching methods of pre-war modernists such as Ni Yide and Guan Liang (1900–1986) and of Eastern European painters such as Eugen Popa can be used to de- center the history of socialist oil painting in China.

Shades of Grey: Impressionism in China, 1956-1979

10:45am – 11:15am

Presenter: Shuyu Kong, Professor of Humanities and co-Director of David Lam Centre, Simon Fraser University

Discussant: Juliane Noth, Heisenberg Fellow, University of Hamburg and Research Professor of China Institute for Visual Studies, China Academy of Art


Impressionism has been a major influence and inspiration for modern and contemporary Chinese artists ever since it was first introduced to China in the early 20th century by artists and art educators who studied in Japan and Europe. Chinese impressionism (yinxiang pai or yinxiangzhuyi), encompassed an eclectic mix of early modern styles, including post impressionism, and was typically used to refer to artistic modes and methods that go beyond or are opposed to the realist tradition.

Based on art works by two groups of unofficial/underground artists (Wu Ming and Shanghai’s Twelve Artists), as well as archived materials on the debates about impressionism among Chinese artists, academics and cultural bureaucrats, I argue that despite the Soviet-influenced official discourse that denounced impressionism as “an art of the capitalist class” in the late 1950s, and subsequent attacks by Jiang Qing in 1966, impressionism continued to exert a profound, albeit distorted, impact on Chinese art and art education during the socialist period.   It was widely practiced among many older artists, ingrained into oil painting classes and methods in art academies, and spread through art publications and private studios/lessons among the younger generation, who sought alternative aesthetic inspiration in its individual and subjective expressions. The evolution of impressionism in socialist China attests to a discreet modernist undercurrent that links the artistic practice/education of the pre-1949 period to the apparently sudden emergence of modernist art in post-Mao China.



Concluding remarks

11:45am -12:00pm

Shuyu Kong, Professor of Humanities and co-Director of David Lam Centre, Simon Fraser University

“Global Art Exchange and Modernism in Socialist China (1949-1979)” is sponsored by SFU David Lam Centre and the Yishu Initiative