1999.6.1: Revival style woodblock prints by Fang Lijun

1999.6.1, 1999

1999.6.1, Fang Lijun, China,1998, h:488 x w:610 cm / h:192.1 x w:240.2 in, woodblock print, printed on five paper/fabric scrolls hung on wooden dowels. His works are in current circulation.

Fang Lijun’s 1999.6.1 is an example of the Cynical Realist movement, or Chinese art in the 1990s, laden with symbolic and political meaning, both in its content and composition. Through the use of a minimalist, gray scale composition, Fang reflects the desolation and anxiety accompanying the loss of identity felt by many Chinese artists.

Descriptive Analysis
1999.6.1 is printed from a woodblock on five paper/fabric scrolls that hang from wooden dowels. They are displayed vertically side by side, measuring approximately 490.9 cm x 606.2 cm. This woodblock is one of his heaven-ward, sky-capped crowd compositions. The large, limited gray scale image appears nearly seamless across the five panels. The most prominent elements within the entire image are the large head and right hand of the anonymous bald figure. He seems to be behind and looming above a crowd, because he is so much larger than the other figures. The top of his head nearly touches the top edge of two scrolls, extending all the way down to the center of the image. His right hand is proportionately large. The negative space that surrounds his head and hand in the upper half of the image is interrupted only by small clouds on either side of his head. His head is slightly turned, revealing the entire left side of his face, as well as his left ear. The contrast in shades of gray is most striking within his face; there is almost a vertical line that continues through the center of his face, distinguishing the right side in light, and dividing the left in shadow. His eyebrows are the only rich black in the entire piece. His mouth is open enough to reveal his upper teeth. To the right of his face, his right hand is frozen in motion; his thumb, second, and third fingers raise upward, while his ring finger and pinky finger close towards his palm.

The lower half of the print is much denser, displaying many upturned faces, varying in sizes, within a crowd. They all have bald or shaven heads and look upward, frowning. The larger figure is the only one who is not looking up or frowning; instead, he looks at his hand, with a distinct smirk on his face. The features on all of the smaller heads are generic and minimal; however, on some of the faces, the shape of the eyebrows, as well as the mouths, convey strong emotion. Similarly, a few of the figures have a hand reaching up which heightens the emotion even more. The mood and expressions on the faces of each individual are painted with painstaking accuracy. Lujin creates confusion by portraying some faces in mid-expression. He uses a monochromatic palette laid down in bold, primary planes within decisive lines. The result is a clarity of expression that resembles caricature.

Formal and Contextual Analysis
Fang Lijun's painting style stems from his Social Realist training. It includes qualities of Chinese folk art, dynastic painting, and contemporary comics. The sources of inspiration for 1999.6.1 came in the aftermath of student demonstrations in 1989 in Tiananmen Square ([[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989) and|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989)]] and the closing of the "China Avant Garde" exhibition at the Chinese National Gallery in Beijing. The decade preceding this incident was a time full of optimism for many Chinese people. Information and ideas flooded in from the West and the people eagerly waited to see Mao Zedong's promises fulfilled. Artists were freer to express themselves than they had been in previous decades, which led to excited tests of their new found freedom. That freedom faded following the Tiananmen Square incident and many who participated in the occupation were interrogated and punished, or went into hiding. This resulted in the dissolving of the zealous creativity of the preceding decade.

In spite of this, some
artists, such as Fang Lijun, felt compelled to express themselves and the feelings of their countrymen, and did so by developing what is now known as the Cynical Realist movement. Characteristic of this movement are works that convey a loss of national identity, disillusionment, and disenchantment with China and it's political rule.

1999.6.1 reflects the sense of confusion and loss of identity of the Chinese people. Fang's lack of color in this piece could reflect the lack of vibrancy and spirit following the Tiananmen Square incident. The many shades of gray may reflect the confusion of the people in an uncertain future. Ambiguous figures amass what could be a rally, celebration, or demonstration. They are bald and their faces are twisted and distorted as though they are suffering. Their gaze is focused skyward as if they are expecting aid from the heavens. They could be men, women, adults, or children. They are not individuals, but a nondescript mass. They are no one and everyone at once, seemingly waiting for something, a promise perhaps that never comes. A huge figure looms above the crowd, smiling, with its right hand raised. Is this the gesture of a self-infatuated manipulator or is it a gesture of Christ-like blessing?

Contrast 1999.6.1 with a propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution. The images are very similar in that they show a crowd of people and a large figure overhead. Though the subject matter is similar, the propaganda poster has a much different feel; it is bright, bold, cheerful, and empowering. The people gathered are peasants, workers, and soldiers. They are happy, strong, and confident in Chairman Mao's plans. Chairman Mao is depicted almost as a god, the light of China, held high above the people glowing with the rays of the sun.

The Working Class Must Exercise Leadership in Everything, 1970


Fang Lijun

Additional Work:

Fang Lijun, 2003.3.1
Fang Lijun, 2003.3.1

woodblock prints and ink paper and fabric scrolls
400 x 852 cm

30th Mary, 2006

oil on canvas
400 x 525 cm

Fang's print 1999.6.1, is part of a series of prints in similar style, large, gray scale, woodblock print depicting sorrowful, struggling, and angry bald figures. This repetition of figures may represent the same person or perhaps is a reference to the artist himself.

Other works of Fang's, like 30th Mary, have a slightly different feel though they are still in the Cynical Realist style and usually depict bald figures. 30th Mary was painted with vibrant color and what look like happy children with Fang's image ascending to heaven in a spiral of clouds. Paintings like this may symbolize futile hope in better things to come for future generations, or perhaps symbolize relief from despair and confusion that only death can bring.

Other Cynical Realist Artists
Not surprisingly other Chinese artists were deeply affected by the Tiananmen Square tragedy. Yue Minjun, a contemporary of Fang Lijun, also works in the Cynical Realist style and references the event in several of his own paintings.

<Execution - Yue Minjun. Oil on canvas. 1995.

Cynical Realist artists do not limit themselves in choice of subject matter but include a range of political, socio-economic, contemporary, and cultural revolution themes. Other Cynical Realist artists like Wu Wei use popular commercial culture as inspiration in her largely self portrait based works.
Under Water Series #8 - Wu Wei. Oil on canvas. 2001.

In general, Wu Wei's works are more introspective then her male contemporaries that dominate the movement.

Overall the Cynical Realist Movement has had a strong reception and has become one of China's most popular styles and highly sought after by both eastern and western collectors.

Fang, Lijun. “Contemporary Chinese Artists.”
This page links to contemporary artists online and includes a brief biography of Fang Lijun with information about the China Avant-Garde movement.

Lijun, Fang “30th Mary”. Saatchi-Gallery.
The Saatchi gallery provides information and analysis of Lijun's 30th Mary.

Fang, Lijun “1999.6.1”. Artnet.
This site provides identification information for Lijun's 1996.6.1.

Fang, Lijun “Fang, Lijun”. China Art Current Virtual Museum
China Art Current provides a very brief biography and an analysis of Lijun's Untitled.

Buhmann, Stephanie. “Fang, Lujin”. The Brooklyn Rail
In this article Buhmann discusses China's Cynical realist movement and the influence of Lijun's work on Chinese culture.

Fang, Lijun “Fang, Lijun”. Artlino
Artelino focuses on the work, style, and influences of Lijun.

Fang, Lijun. Artnet.
This site provides identification information for Fang Lijun's Untitled.

Goodman, Jonathan. "Fang Lijun at Thomas Erben." Art in America 92.6 (June-July 2004): 174(1).
Goodman's article focuses on Fang Lijun as a rising star in the art world starting with the "No U-Turn" exhibit in 1989.

Grosenick, Uta and Casper H. Schubbe, eds. China Art Book. Koln: Dumont, 2007.
China Art Book focuses on the culture and influences of modern China on 80 contemporary Chinese artists, including Fang Lijun.

MacMillan, Kyle. "Fang Lijun: the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar." Artforum International 46.3 (Nov 2007): 373(2).
This article discusses the history and works of Fang Lijun.

Sullivan, Michael. The China Quarterly, no. 159 Special Issue. “The People’s Republic of China After Fifty Years.” (Sep., 1999) pp. 715-722.
In this quarterly, Sullivan discusses the influence of the communist government's policies on art and culture in modern China.

Smith, Karen. Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-garde Art in New China. Zurich:Scalo, 2006. UM
This book by Karen Smith focuses on the live of nine contemporary Chinese artists and how their lives have changed as a result of the international success of China's Avant-Garde movement.

Tong, Dian. China!: New Art and Artists. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing ltd., 2005.
China! focuses on Chinese artists over the last 25 years.

Art Lesson 1
Title: Take a "Cynical" Stand
Grade Level: High School
Time Needed: 10-12 one hour long class periods

This lesson meets the following National Standards for Arts Education:
VA.9-12.1 Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes (1 & 2)
VA.9-12.2 Using knowledge of structures and functions (3)
VA.9-12.3 Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas (1)
VA.9-12.4 Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures (1 & 2)
VA.9-12.5 Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others (1 & 2)
VA.9-12.6 Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines (2)

This lesson meets the following National Educational Technology Standards for Students:
2. Communication and Collaboration (b)

Significant Key Concepts:
  • Cynical Realism: Drawing inspiration from political events, artists create works of art that convey these events in a seemingly neutral, but relentlessly engaged and cynical way.

Teaching and Learning Activities:
Activity 1: A "Cynical" Introduction
The first activity will introduce Fang Lijun and examples of Cynical Realist art, a contemporary art movement of China. The activity will begin with a group discussion comparing the work The Third of May, 1808 by Francisco Goya with the work 1999.6.1 by Fang Lijun. The discussion will ask students to highlight the different emotions, subjects, expressions, styles and contexts of the two works. Following of the discussion, other Cynicial Realist works will be shown and compared and contrasted in the same way. The instructor will inform students, by way of PowerPoint lecture, the major concepts of the artists working within this movement, most notably, that the works are strongly political, without taking a decidedly partial stance. Focus will be strongly on Fang’s work 1999.6.1 as a reaction to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. Despite the tragic events of 1989, and the effect it has had on his life and work, Fang continues to create works that remain relatively neutral in response. As a whole, the Cynical Realist movement is strongly social and political, but remains emotionally balanced in reaction to the events that inspire them.

Activity 2: A "Cynical" Consideration
Students will be asked to consider an especially tragic event they have experienced. The event can be either of a personal nature or of national significance. No matter the event, it must be of significant self importance. The students will be asked to reflect in their journal on the event, citing emotional and cognitive reactions. The instructor will explain to the students that if they feel the need to present partisan reflection to the events, now is the appropriate time to do it, as their focus and reaction will be strictly impartial from here forward. Possible prompts for journal entry #1:
  • Has this event affected the way in which you live your day to day life? How?
  • How often do you think of the event?
  • How has the event affected your personal opinions?
  • How has the event affected personal relationships?

Activity 3: Making "Cynical" Art
Students will be asked to provide evidence of their understanding of the Cynical Realist movement by creating a work of art in reaction to the event they’ve reflected on above. They work can be in any medium that is available in the classroom but it must employ the stylistic methods from the Cynical Realists to convey emotional neutrality toward the event. The students will be asked to submit an assignment intent sheet as to which medium they plan to use before they begin their work. At the completion of the work, students will once again reflect in their journals on their experience. Possible prompts for journal entry #2:
  • What are the challenging aspects of the project? Please explain.
  • How has/hasn’t your choice of medium complement your portrayal of the event and its context.
  • Has working with neutrality towards your event altered your perception of it? Explain.
  • Has the neutrality towards your event altered the perception of those who were affected by the same event? Explain.
  • Do you believe your experience mirrors that of Fang Lijun and other Cynical Realists? How? Why not?

At the end of the journal writing, the students will photograph their completed works and publish them on a class blog. They will be asked to write a short statement explaining their piece. While not a requirement, the students can publish their entries or partial passages from their journals on the page as well.

Assessment Criteria:
Students will be evaluated based on production quality, journal reflection and their blog entry.

Rubric: Total = 100 points
"Cynical" Journals: (25 Points)
Present their journal with two strongly reflective entries. The first, a reflection on the event they chose, detailing why they selected the event and how it has affected their lives. The second, a reflection on the completed project detailing how creating such a piece has affected the way they view the event and art.

"Cynical" Artwork: (60 Points)
Produce a work of art, inspired by the event they chose, that is strongly cognitive in nature, yet remains emotionally balanced in presentation. Medium, technique and composition will be subject to critique by the instructor.

"Cynical" Art Blog: (15 Points)
Publish their work on the class blog, including an image of the work and a brief statement detailing their intentions, inspirations and reflections on the assignment. Students may include some content of their journal entries, but it is not required.