Revolutionary Gaze

Mark Elvin

I remember very clearly a visit to the art college in Nanking in April 1976. The suffocating presence of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife and aesthetic dictator of the day) could be felt almost everywhere. Even so, there was quite a variety of work on show: some stiff, hieratic seal-style calligraphy, and experiments in inking landscapes on soft absorbent paper in unusual ways, as well as the endless, predictable sunlit parade of pictures on the approved themes of Maoist revolutionary romanticism – stage lighting, theatrical poses, crowds contrasting with lone figures frozen in the ‘revolutionary gaze’(as we called it), half-defiant, half-messianic, eyes fixed at 45 degrees on some distant future. Occasionally there was the odd piece that came to life in spite of it all. I recall a small lithograph (I think it was) where a cool jet of irrigation water arched across the deep dark green of an upland valley, while the sun shone yellow on a plain far below, sparkling with pylons.

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