By Lv Peng, published in 2006 by Peking University Press
Reviewed by Carol (Yinghua) Lu
One of the dire challenges anyone working in and with the art world of China faces today is the inability to contemplate all the quick productions, swift turnovers of artworks and rapid changes in a larger context. When art prices continue to shoot through the roof like property value, when new galleries and auction houses open on a daily basis, when young art students and fresh graduates are sought after like a piece of hot cake, when artists churn out work in a massive quantity and drive BMWs and Audis, how to make sense of a art scene that operates and thrives on value and more alarmingly on the mix-up of the monetary worth and the intellectual quality of a piece of art?
This is a tough question few could answer or care to tackle. But what is important at our times driven by a frenzied art market is the need to re-valuate art itself by intellectual standards and to differentiate those artists and works that are rooted in the fine art history from the pure cannon fodder of the market. This is a battle one couldn’t go into without being properly armed with sufficient knowledge of art history and a historical perspective.
Lv Peng’s latest volume A History of Art in the Twentieth-Century China is one such useful instrument to keep by the side. It is the very first comprehensive and encyclopedic survey of major art movements, art events, artists and artworks in China over a time span of 100 years between 1900 and 1999. In this book, the author structures his historical narrative based on the political, economic and social movements of the last century. A political science undergraduate from 1977 to 1982, the author believes that Chinese art in the 20th century has an indispensable and even direct link to the radical and recurrent political and economic changes of the same century, “We can’t sidestep the influences of those key historical events, political issues and social evolutions on art, besides, such influences are usually decisive.” He stated in his foreword to the book, “This 100-year art history was one free of stylistic or formal issues, but shaped by ‘dogmas,’ ‘isms,’ ‘political events,’ ‘political documents,’ ‘political orders’ or ‘ideologies’.”
Lv Peng’s unmistakable political outlook is evident especially in the headings of the first four chapters, which situated key art movements and artists in relevant political periods from “The Situation after the Opium War, or Art Prior to the Xinhai Revolution: 1840 – 1911”, “Art During the Minguo Period: 1911-1937”, “During and After the Anti-Japan War: 1937-1949”, and “Art During the Socialist Construction Period and the Cultural Revolution: 1949-1976”. The time span discussed in the first chapter was deliberately pushed back to 1840, the year of the Opium War, as a result of which China was forced to open its door to the West, and such contact thus brought significant changes to art practice in China. The author has also unconventionally discussed art production from 1949 all through to 1976 rather than considering the durations before and during the Cultural Revolution as two separate time periods. It was during the Cultural Revolution that all the previous campaigns for art to serve the people and serve the ideological infiltration of the party after the founding of the new country continued and became intensified. It was the ultimate proof of the inseparable relationship between art and politics in China. Chapter five was devoted to modern art in Taiwan and Hong Kong from 1950 to 1980, which didn’t suffer the same political implications as the Mainland China.
In each chapter, the author goes to great length to recapture the political, social and cultural climate of a particular region or a time period before providing in-depth analysis of representative and momentary artworks, art movements and artists, effortlessly interweaving both accounts. Reading artworks and art events in a political and social context sheds new lights on the understanding of the works beyond their formal value. Where serious discussions are in full supply in the book, anecdotes add flavor and fun. Lv Peng’s history telling has such a rare sense of ease and flow that reading itself is as much a pleasure as a didactic experience.
Lv Peng is no stranger to the writing of history. His impressive caliber includes Chinese Contemporary Art History 1990 – 1999 (Published in 2000 by Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House) and A History of China Modern Art 1979-1989 (co-written with Yi Dan, published in 1992 by Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House), both essential readings about the formative and crucial decades for Chinese contemporary art. He received his PhD degree from the History Department of China Academy of Art in 2004 and is currently teaching in the same department. In the same year, Lv Peng published a book Pure Views: Remote from Streams and Mountains, Chinese Landscape Painting in 10th - 13th Century, which was his PhD dissertation. This book traces the history and development of traditional Chinese landscape painting, starting from masters of the Song Dynasty in the 10th century to modern ink painters such as Zhang Daqian, Huang Binhong and Wu Guanzhong.
Lv Peng’s appetite for historical materials makes his latest tome an essential source of information and inspirations. In the meantime, his long-termed and innovative involvement in the development of Chinese contemporary art fills the last chapter of the book on “Art of the 1990s” with vivid accounts of events, which he witnessed or was part of, and convincing arguments. Its coverage includes artist villages, and new developments in painting, female artists’ practice, new literati painting and experimental water ink painting, performance and conceptual art, complete with descriptions of relevant social, economic and cultural shifts in the country.
As a practitioner, Lv Peng has been known for his pioneering and enterprising spirit as well as his visionary undertakings. He was one of the earlier crusaders to introduce the market practice into contemporary art in China, by organizing the first Guangzhou Biennial funded by a private enterprise in the early 1990s. He was the first one to write up a history of Chinese contemporary art from 1979 to 1989, documenting the most groundbreaking period for Chinese cultural production after the Cultural Revolution. A History of Art in the Twentieth-Century China once again demonstrates Lv Peng’s ability to enrich the discussion of art with political and social perspectives and observations, and to translate his visionary ambitions in both practical and theoretical possibilities.