Saturday, August 09, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - the art of Jiawei Shen

By accident, we tuned into the SBS program (5 August) on the Chinese artist Jiawei Shen. I knew nothing about the documentary, had never heard of Mr Shen, so had no expectations.

Jiawei Shen was born in 1948 in Shanghai, China. After showing promising talent in his early 20s he decided to cultivate his skills and build a solid career as an artist.

However, Mr Shen’s dream of becoming an artist was cut short as the Cultural Revolution engulfed China. Under Mao’s rule all art schools were closed down and the working class were shipped out of the cities and ordered to work on the land, leaving Shen to teach himself the craft which would become his livelihood years later.

With the death of Mao in the late 70s and a new pragmatic leadership in place, the art school doors were reopened allowing Mr Shen to study for two years at Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

We joined the documentary a little after the start. Having no pre-conceptions, I will explain this a little in a moment, we took the program as a study of a Chinese artist and the relationship between his life and work. Here it pointed and counterpointed between Mr Shen's life and his painting in an absolutely fascinating way.

Both of us were struck by what we saw as the different influences on his work, sometimes impressionist, at other times what I sometimes call the Napoleonic style, patriotism and state triumphalism.

I use the term Napoleonic style because this was the mental label I created after my first visit to the Louvre where I spent several hours looking at French paintings from the revolution through to the giant paintings celebrating the triumphs of Napoleon and his empire.

There are parallels between this period and modern China. Both had ancien regimes torn down by revolutions that created powerful secular ideologies. In both cases, those ideologies morphed into imperial states.

To our surprise, the documentary then moved to Mr Shen's migration to Australia and his subsequent experiences here as he built a life as a successful painter.

I am glad that we did not know this. Had we known, and this is the way preconceptions affect perceptions, then I suspect that we would have viewed the first part of the documentary as a precursor to the second, the Australian experience.

The end of the SBS program description rather neatly captures this:

Apart from the normal demands of being a husband and father, the major challenge now facing Jiawei is the migrant experience. Jiawei is trying to create a place for himself as an artist in the Australian context. But this poses a dilemma. What does Shen Jiawei now paint in his adopted homeland? Displaced from China and its history he must now find new historical themes that reflect his current experience. It's through his art that he tries to convey a sense of the ongoing dialogue between his Chinese self and the Australian that he's becoming.

I am sure that this - the Australian experience - would have been our core focus as well. Instead, we really saw the program as two documentaries, each distinct in its own right, thus adding to our enjoyment.

I thought that the second half of the program was distinctly weaker than the first. The Shens' Australian story is fascinating. However, while the personal story was well told, I really did not get a strong impression of the way that Mr Shen's art had changed. The personal dominated the artistic.

I have tried to explore the relationship between the Australian artist or writer, environment and our history in a number of posts.

Central to this has been the interaction between a migrant community and their new land. Central, too, has been the way in which local artists have borrowed overseas styles and models. Both have melded to form new Australian forms.

So I would like to have learned more about Mr Shen as an artist, more about the way in which his art has evolved.

Assorted Posts

A partial list of associated posts on Australian art and culture follows. In creating this list, I realised that there were a lot - not all are here - and that I needed a way of categorising them so that linked themes could be properly drawn out. But this will have to wait.


Neil has kindly put up a companion post to this one looking at other aspects of Australia-Chinese art. I suspect that there is a fertile field here that we have barely touched.


Anonymous said...

Nice post; I have responded.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you Neil.