Red Azaleas: Tracing the Secret History of Chinese Women Artists' Struggle for Recognition Across the Twentieth Century


Establishing a Revolutionary Party, Wang Gongyi, 1980s

by En Liang Khong

Women have always been at the forefront of the radical and visionary thought flowing across China’s twentieth century. The cross-dressing Qiu Jin was emblematic of a revolutionary feminist current at the end of the Qing era, writing urgently on women’s emancipation: “While the men of China are entering a civilized new world, China’s women still remain in the dark.” She was executed for demanding the overthrow of the dynasty. But the figure of Qiu Jin lives on in the hands of the artist Wang Gongyi, who created a series of prints dedicated to the rebel heroine in 1980. “I still remember the time when I cut Qiu Jin”, Wang Gongyi vividly remembers. “Dripping with sweat and tears, my heart filled with grief and indignation.”

Wang Gongyi’s print from the Qiu Jin series, “Establishing a Revolutionary Party”, lies right at the heart of the Ashmolean Museum’s From Palace to Studio exhibition, which traces the ebb and flow of Chinese women artists. Certain analytical categories – propaganda, commodity fetishism, dissident politics – have attained preeminence in our understanding of the contemporary Chinese art scene. But the movement of Chinese women artists recedes into the background, its contours and rhythms occulted from view. The recent decades of freewheeling developments in Chinese art have been the preserve of an old boys’ club.

When Wang Gongyi turned to Qiu Jin in the 1980s, she was part of a set of artists spearheading experimental ink painting, playing with ink wash in semi-abstract waves combined with linear structures. This was a time when women artists faced a dual struggle, on the one hand confronting the demands of the market, and on the other, recasting their position within it. Wang Gongyi’s decision to render the feminist icon through the direct aggression of the black-and-white woodblock print, calling on the visual mode of German Expressionism and the twentieth century history of Chinese woodcuts, was a provocative restatement of the early avant-garde, running against the grain of both the art market and China’s New Wave artists. Printmaking, once so instrumental to socialist visuality and mass distribution, had become a marginalised medium in the 1980s, its retreat aligned with the depoliticisation of the post-revolutionary era.

Away from the revolutionary agitation, the whisperings of wealth and opulence hang in the air, as From Palace to Studio draws on the work of Miao Jiahui, ghost painter to the Empress Dowager Cixi, attending to her “from morning to night”. Her “Bouquet of Peonies”, painted sometime in the dying days of the Qing dynasty, is an example of flower painting under her own signature. The long view taken by From Palace to Studio reaches back to the cloistered experience of the elite women of China’s imperial history, in order to bring the force of the past into our view. When women today refuse the naturalisation of China’s patriarchal art scene, this shapes both the future and the distant past. And Chinese women artists have struggled to reformulate their relationship with both the world of art and Chinese history in increasingly subversive ways. Chen Lingyang in the late 1990s began an infatuation with the stains and blots of menstruation. Her 2000 piece “Twelve Flower Months” presented bloodstained body parts in a pairing with flowers as suggested by Chinese tradition.

From Palace to Studio does not engage with such outspoken pieces on gender identity, but instead trains its eye on the hushed ways in which the movements of women artists have converged in an interplay between tradition, experimentalism and the natural world. The graphic impact of Cai Xiaoli’s 1997 “Summer Flowers” flows out of a confluence of influences: the meticulous capture of detail as required by the ‘gongbi’ tradition, alongside a glaring, exaggerated palette, delivering the piece in radiant ignition. Yang Yanping’s “Landscape” composed in the 1990s, exploits the ways in which ink permeates the rice paper, with the entire landscape moving as a layered alternation of shade, mountains just breaking through the mist. Again in Tseng Yuho’s 1990 “Trees in the Mist”, the conversation between traditional brushwork and timbral experimentation is as much about the idea of visibility as the view itself.

Despite its tragedies, the Mao era upheld challenging traditional forms of gender inequality as a critical goal of the revolution. The recent reform years of changing social relations have seen the resurgence and intensification of traditional gender norms and venal marriage practices. Many of the artists who have come together in From Palace to Studio have lived through much of China’s turbulent history, the transformations and regressions in womens’ rights throughout the twentieth century. This is refracted in the artistic life of Xiao Shufang, who became adept at a wild array of ink and sculpting techniques under the Mao years. She ceased painting altogether as the Cultural Revolution took hold, and only resumed in 1973 with close botanical studies. The Ashmolean follows her in 1980s “Mountain Flowers in Full Bloom” as she turned to the hometown of Mao and the floral symbolism of Chinese martyrs, capturing the frothing azalea flowers of Shaoshan, their leaves, petals and scent spread across the paper. Xiao Shufang absorbed herself in a vision of the world as a sea of flowers, the wounds of the century healed over in a pure immersion into these sparkling fragments.

In 1971 the art historian Linda Nochlin asked: why has greatness become the preserve of the male genius? From Palace to Studio records a search for an answer, traversing the absences dotted across the documentation of twentieth century Chinese art, in order to demand that we reconsider our own recounting of history.

From Palace to Studio, until September 27, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.