Ma Desheng, Abstract 1, 1987, Ink on Chinese paper, 69 x 102 cm (27 x 40 in). Image courtesy of Rossi & Rossi
ARTIST: Chinese artist Ma Desheng celebrated for artistic excellence and resolve in the face oppression
LONDON — A selection of works by Ma Desheng, one of China’s most distinguished contemporary artists and poets is at the center of this year’s Asian Art in London. In an exhibition titled Ma Desheng: Selected Works 1979–87, art lovers have the opportunity to experience the works of this exceptional self-taught Chinese artist, who was at the forefront of the fight against totalitarian Chinese government.
Presented by Rossi & Rossi London, on display at the exhibition is a selection of the Ma’s woodblock prints and painting from late 1970s to the 1980s. Ma’s early works reflect his experience and observations of events around him during the China Cultural Revolution. They address what has been considered by historians as a painful point in Chinese history. This was during the era of Chairman Mao.
ARTCENTRON CELEBRATED | READ ALSO: Artcentron Celebrates Past Winners of Photo Contest
Ma’s works are riddled with dark anecdotal history. They portray depressed peasants and sad workers struggling for recognition in the face of an oppressive regime. In Rolled Cigarette, a 1978, woodblock print, Ma captures a garbage collector rolling a cigarette during a break from his daily labor. The man’s body language and wrinkled face shows his struggles and pain. Even his arthritic hands reveal the crippling effect of this tedious job.
The Popsicle Vendor, a 1980, woodblock print corroborates the story inherent in Rolled Cigarette. Popsicle Vendor has the dominant image of an aged woman standing behind her Popsicle cart. In her hand is the money she made for the day. From her disheveled, wrinkled face and dehydrated skin, it is clear that this woman has lived a tortured existence. The money which she counts intently is obviously not enough to help her leave a good life.
Ma’s works not only illuminate the experience of the common people in the countryside, they also challenge the kitsch and brightly colored social realism propaganda imagery perpetrated by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution. To give the impression that all is well, the Jiang Quing’s Cultural Revolution Group mandated that peasants, workers and soldiers to be painted in happy colors. Beside the image of chairman Mao smiling, everything appeared rosy.
While the Chinese government portrayed peasants and workers as happy people, Ma’s works portray them otherwise. The people in Ma’s prints are unhappy and dejected. His depiction of a peasant on his knees, hands held up to the sky, howling in misery, shocked people who saw it at the Democracy Wall, a long brick wall running along Xidan Street, just west of Tiananmen square. It was named the Democracy Wall because it became the center of artistic expression where artists that had been silenced for years freely expressed themselves.
Ma’s depictions of the oppressed during the cultural revolution was poignant and brought him in crosshair with the government. In 1979, when his works were featured along the gates outside the National Museum as part of the first Stars Art Exhibition, he became a target of the government. Works in the show were not just poorly received by officials, they were also confiscated on the second day. Ma was also arrested.
The 1979 arrest was just one of the issues Ma had to contend with in his direct opposition to the Chinese government’s quest to silence opposition and eliminate liberal thoughts. Unrelenting in their determination to eradicate liberal ideas, Government officials closed art schools and arrested artists who were using their works to address the injustices in the Chinese Society. Ma was one of main targets. As the leader of the Stars Group of artists and radical artistic voice, he was continually the focus of crackdowns.
Tired of the harassment, Ma relocated to Europe. In Paris, his works took a new path. As he reevaluated his relationship with traditional Chinese ink, painting, the artist discovered figure painting in a new world. The naked female body soon became a point of fascination. His sensuous ink wash series put him in the limelight.
Ma’s exploration of the nude female figure reveals the essence of his style. Using thick and strong black lines and rubbed brushwork, Ma imbues his figures with emotion and energy. Works like Ink Nude 4, 1987 shows the depth of the minimalist influence. The composition made up of a group of naked women either playing or having a bath combined to create a confluence interplay of dark and light. Even though the forms are minimalist, the sensuous and erotic form of the women are captivating.
The composition of Ink Nude 4 is mimetic of the compositions of modern masters such as Paul Cezanne’s The Bathers (1900-06) and Henri Matisse The Dance (1910). Ma’s rendition of the female form also follows in the modernist tradition of ancient Ham Dynasty sculpture 206 (BCE-220CE) that emphasized use of minimalist line that are charged with expressionist emotion.
Born in 1952 in Beijing, Ma’s path to becoming a celebrated artist was full of potholes filled with poisoned spikes. After been rejected by the Beijing Central Academy of Arts because he was deemed ‘unfit’ to be an artist, Ma was unrelenting in his quest to make it as an artist. Instead of resigning to fate, he decided to train himself as a woodblock craftsman.
With deep exploration into techniques of great print makers before him, it did not take long before he began to make a name for himself. Exploring traditional Chinese medium of ink and brush, Ma went on to produce highly expressive monochrome prints that eventually proved many at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Art wrong.
Ma’s black and white prints were very effective in telling the stories of the oppressed. Influenced by works of revolutionary woodblock printers like Lu Xun and European artists including Kathe Kollwitz and Edvard Munch, Ma’s works are heartrending. His truthful representation of the sufferings of peasants and the working class in contradiction of the Chinese Communist government propaganda showed bravery and determination. It is not surprising that Ma continues to be a major source of influence for young artists, including Ai Weiwei, who was the youngest member of the Stars Group at the height of the Cultural Revolution.
When Ma became the subject of constant attack from the Chinese Communist Government, he left China and travelled to Europe. The journey to Europe for Ma was bitter sweet. In 1992, Ma was in a major car accident that almost took his life in Paris. The serious physical injury sustained during the car accident claimed his hands and legs. For many years, Ma could not practice as an artist. When it seemed all hope was lost, Ma picked himself up and went back to art. Unable to continue in the area of woodblock printing and ink painting, he switched to acrylic paint. Ma created large and bold piece that are mimetic of the stone motifs found in his earlier woodblock prints and ink paintings
Ma deserves to be celebrated not just because of his artistic excellence but also perseverance and determination. That is why Artcentron celebrates Ma who now lives and works in Paris. Ma is an artist who finds opportunity with every disability. Although he was handicapped by childhood polio that left him on crutches, he was undeterred in his mission to excel as an artist. Not even the rejection from the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts nor the debilitating injuries sustained in the Paris accident could dent his determination.
Today, May is one of the most celebrated Chinese artists. His works can be found in public and private collections across the globe. They include the British Museum, London; The Fukuoka City Museum, Japan; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK; Musée de Melun, France; and the University Museum and Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong among many others.
Join the art conversation: Share your thoughts and comments