Li Huasheng (b. 1944) represents the first generation of artists raised and trained in the People’s Republic of China. His career spans the painting of Maoist propaganda in the 1960s, a decade of secretly studying forbidden traditional styles during the Cultural Revolution, an overnight rise from poverty to prominence during the artistic rejuvenation of Sichuan province under Deng Xiaoping, a hellish descent into political disgrace during the anti-Western campaign of 1983-1984, and a boldly pursued political rehabilitation to become Sichuan’s foremost younger artist today. All along, Li has been driven by a fearless flair for drama that is expressed not only in his remarkable paintings of teh Sichuan landscape but in a lifelong passion for Sichuan-style theater. Li’s career has been allied with that of his foremost mentor, Chen Zizhuang (1913-1976). Chen, a personal bodyguard and cultural adviser to Sichuan’s last warlord governor, was ostracized by the Communist arts administration after 1949 and died in obscurity, but posthumously became a centerpiece of the revival of traditional arts in Sichuan under the influence of Deng Xiaoping.
Since the advent of socialism in China, no mainland Chinese artist has dared expose his life in detail. As a result, little is known outside China of how artistic life is lived or of the system that regulates it. In exploring the lives of Li Huasheng and Chen Zizhuang, Contradictions reveals for the first time both the details and the character of artistic life in socialist China. Particular attention is given to the various forms of patronage that shaped these artists’ options: state patronage, a monopoly that has been regulated by associations, academies, exhibition halls, and publication houses in conformity with Communist party ideology; commercial patronage, in which painting serves as a form of currency in the exchange of private services and personal favors; protective patronage, provided by the political elite in exchange for art and artistic companionship; and spiritual patronage, provided by Daoist and Buddhist temples that share the artist’s passion for individual creativity and antipathy to the state.
Contradictions combines art, institutional history, and extensive and uncensored interviews and correspondence with a wide range of individuals, both friends and rivals, who have shaped Li Huasheng’s career: his teachers and artistic colleagues, the leaders of Sichuan’s arts administration, the patrons ranging from army commisar to Daoist priest, the illicit love, the state managed journalist looking for a target, the state arts store manager, and the newly liberated dealers in art and artistic forgeries.
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