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.

Two conflicting trends could be seen in the students’ work, both linked with Gang art policy. They had been sent out to farms, factories and work-sites to look at the people; and their thick, smudgy pencil sketches reflected real encounters with the world. I can still call to mind one of a survey team setting up a theodolite, and another of girl apprentices (with anatomically impossible arms but lots of real energy) struggling to turn off a heavy handwheel controlling a stopcock on a large-diameter pipe. There were unfilled spaces on the paper, uncertainties, ambiguities. When we arrived, the students had propped up these sketches beside them in the studio-rooms of the college to use as guides while they laboured at the fully-coloured oil versions. Under one’s eyes, one could see the life disappearing. Everything in the painted-up versions had precise outlines, as if they had been cut out of paper and mentally labelled in the interests of ideological control. (There wasn’t, even the odd shadow under a chin merging into a background.) The spaces had been filled in. A misty darkness on the left side of one sketch had been turned into a neat little valley with lines of plantation trees, in homage to reafforestation. I couldn’t hide my dismay, and ran out onto the front steps of the college pursued by students asking for advice. I am not a qualified artist. What could I reasonably say to them?

These were some of the memories stirred by Hockney and Spender’s book on their recent trip around the People’s Republic. It is lavishly illustrated and handsomely produced, and a large part of it given over to meetings with Chinese painters and poets. Yet it doesn’t contain a single reproduction of a work by a contemporary Chinese artist, beyond a black-and-white picture of a city, river and mountains by an eight-year-old prodigy, about whom more later. This is frustrating. A few pictures would be a better guide to what has been happening to art in China since the dark days of 1976 than any number of interviews and discussions. Similarly, there are only four fragments of contemporary Chinese poetry in translation, but I am more in sympathy with Spender’s difficulties in trying to understand and put across what is going on in literature – since he doesn’t read the language or know the past.

That, then, is the book they haven’t written. If one turns to what China Diary actually is, one has to say that it is a mildly narcissistic, self-indulgent ramble, quite pleasant to read, and with occasional flashes of insight. Thus Spender remarks that ‘there are times in China when the tourists seem totally disconnected from the places they are visiting... like the plug of the television set in David and Gregory’s room which failed to fit into its socket.’ He compares conversation with the Chinese to ‘a clear transparent stream with a smiling, friendly surface, but a few inches down an opaque floor of stone at the bottom of the stream, below which one cannot see at all’. There are some provocative asides. Spender rightly alludes to the sale of ‘illicit pornographic literature’. He might have added that pornographic drawings are often a useful source of income for artists in China (or so I am informed through what I believe to be a reliable source). One student told Gregory Evans, Hockney’s companion, that in China now ‘in order to become a Party member your parents must also be members.’ I doubt if this is true, but that the remark could be made at all is significant. Another student also observed, again to Gregory, that ‘in China, the old do not like the young.’ Too sweeping, no doubt, but worth a moment’s reflection.

Most of the time, though, the reader is kept firmly in Touristland – as were the authors by Mr Lin, their kindly but masterful guide. To make up for this, Spender works a trifle too hard at embellishing ordinary experience with little poetic touches. A certain Miss Li’s face, for example, is ‘varnished a kind of transparent brown like the scroll of a ‘cello’. Hockney’s self-consciously naive doodles in bright, simple colours are not really worth the splendour of full or even double-page reproduction. An exception is the detail on page 169, a hypnotic colour-recession effect of dark green twigs and light brown soil against the blue karst pinnacles of Guilin. He complained of a lack of the time and calm required for painting during their trip, and one can sympathise with this.

The Hockney photographs are, however, fascinating. Technically only too obviously the work of an amateur, they often have an artist’s visual wit that nicely compensates for the inadequacies of definition, tone and focus. An obvious example is the picture of a shop-window, bereft of any sense of how to display goods, where two vacuum-cleaners and three electric fans are lined up forlornly like girls neglected at the edge of a dance-floor. There are many others, whose effect is less easy to put into words.

The two main dramatis personae come across well. Spender has alternating moods in which, first, his painfully acquired disillusionment with Communism and then his residual revolutionary nostalgia alternately get the upper hand. Hockney exhibits a mixture of straight seeing (for example, of the class divisions in China) and a disconcerting unawareness of the social realities of the place, but always a great capacity for enjoying life. The account of his hours with the boy-artist prodigy mentioned earlier, showing him new materials and the techniques to go with them, though somewhat sentimentalised, is genuinely moving.