Paintings by Song Wenzhi, 1972-1975

The following scenes were painted by the Chinese artist Song Wenzhi during the 1970s. I find these much more interesting than the rather derivative Socialist Realist style that predominated from the 1950s-1970s. Superficially, at least (I’m no expert in East Asian art), these would seem to use non-realist “traditional” forms to depict quintessentially modern content. Technoindustrial alterations to the landscape are part of the landscape.

As I wrote in response to someone who felt the representation of industrial imagery “polluted” the purity of the traditional genre of Chinese landscape paining, there’s an ironic fidelity to Wenzhi’s paintings to this tradition. By this I mean that traditional Chinese landscape paintings often did include scattered human artifacts — bridges, huts, sometimes tiny people — embedded in the scenery. So it’s not as if humanity’s intervention into nature is wholly absent from such paintings. In the paintings of Wenzhi, however, the scale of these manmade structures, especially those involved in or facilitated by industrialization, is obviously much larger. On a whole different scale, one might say. Even then, these are integrated into the landscape.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting featuring small human artifacts

Traditional Chinese landscape painting featuring small human artifacts

However, I wouldn’t say that this is simply a continuation of tradition. Wenzhi was doubtless aware that a qualitative difference had resulted from this quantitative increase. In fact, that’s what makes the irony all the more pronounced. Yet here once again, the point should be that alterations to the landscape form part of the landscape. There’s no such thing as verdant, “untouched” nature.

Daniel Cairns, a Sinologist who was studying at UChicago during my time there, added only this (as if to confirm my sentiment):

So I took some undergrad courses in Chinese art history. From what I remember, traditional Chinese landscape painting often included people or evidence of human activity, but when included it was as a minuscule part of the landscape. I believe the commentary here is the magnified human impact. Instead of rustic huts or small fishing boats on a lake, we have power lines and factories.

That about sums it up. Enjoy.

An addendum

Honorable comrade Brian Hioe adds:

To my own shame for someone interested in aesthetic-political discourse in 20th century China (my excuse is that I’m a lit guy and not an art guy, which is not a great one), I know almost nothing about Chinese art history and Song Wenzhi, but his bio suggests at least official legitimization if he was director of the China Artists Association, and that he was a well-known figure in his time.

To the extent that his art was at least officially sanctioned under the mantle of Chinese socialist realism aesthetics, it could perhaps be abrogated under the branches of Chinese socialist realism which blend Chinese “traditional” forms with socialist realist that rise to prominence after the Sino-Soviet split. So it strikes me as folks reacting against the so-to-speak pollution of traditional forms have a pretty reified notion of the uses and abuses of Chinese traditional art forms to begin with. But I have to wonder if this is less an ironic juxtaposition of traditional forms as social commentary, but can in fact be interpreted as straight-up socialist realism in itself — whereby what beauty results from the painting takes on the tinge of irony in the way that socialist realist works can sometimes recapitulate older, more conservative forms, but also be altogether quite beautiful nonetheless and yet strike as so ironic in juxtaposition in the present so far as they are entangled with the history of actually existing socialism, and also sometimes conceal subversive elements that demand to be revealed (whether deliberate or not on the part of the authors). The works come, after all, in the wake of the Great Leap Forward in China, after the Great Chinese Famine, and six years into the Cultural Revolution.

This is all speculation, though, so far as Google tells me this comes out of the milieu of the New Jinling Art Movement, which I know nothing about. Anyway, my point is that some of the interpretative frames for Soviet socialist realism may perhaps be relevant here as well.

If anyone else has any info on Song Wenzhi, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below to that effect.

5 thoughts on “Paintings by Song Wenzhi, 1972-1975

  1. I really do have a painting by Song Wenzhi that I purchased in Suzhou, Jiangsu province about four years ago. At the time |I didn’t realise how famous the painter is, I really would like some advise on my painting. I’m happy to email photos etc.
    Ps, I live in Wales UK

  2. hey Phil, I hope you realize there’s little chance that the purchase you made is original, since in China tens of thousands of students are taught in art institutes just how to copy works of art (e.g. Dafen in Shenzhen). If however what you have is original, I would never sell it, for probably it’s something very beautiful.

    To author of this blog, thank you for sharing, I’m in China now and I’ll be glad to do some research and eventually share what I got to know with you here. Happy new year of the horse. X

    • What I’d like to add here is that the tradition to which those Song Wenzhi landscapes seem to be referring to is called 山水 – shan shui,

      Viewing them through this aspect, Song’s paintings look ironic, but what I personally think is that they’re totally not. Although now it might look “experimental”, it’s rather the opposite. He’s using the language known for a thousand years to tell and glorify the country and nation’s step forward. This occurs to me after reading that he was a director of Artists Association in the 70s when he painted those – but I might be wrong, for I am not an art specialist, rather just an admirer.

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