On Tang Zhigang’s Early Painting

When I interviewed Tang Zhigang, I discovered he’s quite the storyteller. As soon as he opens his mouth, it just comes pouring out. He also has the body language to match as he lays out the stories in vivid detail. I almost mistook him for a novelist instead of a painter. Listening to his stories, I feel like if he does not want to put them down in writing, then maybe one day I would like to borrow them as my own literary works. I hope he agrees, but that’s something for another day. Bringing this up in the opening of my essay is not a tangent. My point is to remind the audience that the painter Tang Zhigang has a talent for narrative.

I will describe the results of this interview focused on his early paintings based on my own research and thoughts on the matter.

Tang Zhigang was born into a military family. His father was a soldier, his brothers were soldiers, and he was a soldier, the difference being that he entered the military life through a back door, so this full-on military family had a flaw, and it was also dragged down by his father’s political problems, and his own encounters and experiences, which can be described using the then brand new political slogan of “Chinese characteristics.” As a child, Tang lived with his mother, who disciplined convicts on a prison farm, and studied along the picturesque Lake Dian at Kunyang, which would go on to influence his life and his painting in latent ways, such as what he saw and learned about female convicts at a young age, or watching Lenin in 1918 in an open air cinema. Such things remain in his spirit. Perhaps this is what Milan Kundera was talking about when he said that people are destined to live their lives based on the previous decade.

In the 1970s, Tang Zhigang was studying in Kunyang. One day, on his way to school, he met someone who was drawing the landscape. They became friends, and he began to learn about painting for the first time. That person’s name was Wang Baoming. After Tang Zhigang’s paintings became famous, he told me, in front of Wang Baoming, that Wang was his formative teacher. It was a moving gesture. After they met, Tang would often go to the tire factory where Wang Baoming worked, and would watch him make sketches after work. These sketches were of characters from the Albanian movie The Eighth in Bronze, which he drew from memory. This is one example of painting from memory. He found it quite strange, but also deeply revelatory. Not long after, a painting scene emerged in the region. He met Xia Yanning, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Xuhui and Yang Yijiang, and took part in the “Peasant Painting Educated Youth Training Class” organized by Kunyang Township, which was taught by famous Yunnan oil painters Sha Lin and Gan Jiawei.

Tang Zhigang naturally took to color life studies, and did drawing and sketching, in what amounted to group performance art at the time. At the time, a group of youths in Kunming took to life studies and plein air painting, wholly untainted by the thick political atmosphere of the day. The teachers mentioned above were painting, artists such as Jiang Gaoyi, Yao Jianhua, Zeng Xiaofeng, Su Xinhong and Mao Xuhui were all painting. Chen Chongping and Xiao Jiahe created a free painting class in the name of art for the masses, and took in such students as Ye Yongqing and Liu Yong. They leaned toward painting from life as well. When Tang Zhigang spoke about the lively painting scene at the time, he described how Li Youxing’s paintings of Lake Dian had a silver white tone, and Bei Wenkun’s gray paintings of rainclouds or evening scenes over the lake were enchanting. He also spoke of how good the snails tasted, and how sometimes they would catch a silver carp the size of a small child…

Tang Zhigang entered the military in 1977. The People’s Liberation Army is a microcosm of ideology, a system of the system. After entering the military, Tang Zhigang continued to paint. Once, a sketch he drew of a leader was spotted by Zhong Kaitian, editor of Warriors for National Defense. It was published in the journal, and Tang received a small payment. This was his first taste of low level fame. He went on to paint many military-themed works, which was the overarching theme in this period, and a theme he would occasionally touch on in his later artworks at the Nanjing University of the Arts and the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art, as his artistic awareness continued to grow. At the time, painters He Kongde and Zhang Wenxin, who painted such themes, were their idols. They were revolutionary idealists or painters who envisioned the heights of utopia. For instance, the large artwork Gutian Conference was a great success in terms of both technique and thinking, and attracted the attention of many students and painters from the academies, and filled the land with red, bright and luminescent paintings, seeming to draw from Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “superman,” and attempting to paint something as glorious as Jacques-Louis David’s Coronation of Napoleon, but it was actually an importation of the ideology of Soviet Painting, and an example of Chinese revolutionary art and literary theory in practice. In this period, Tang Zhigang created a lot of studies and oil paintings. Looking at the images he still has of those studies, such as Instructor, Communications Station and Switchboard Operators, we see that he has strong brushwork, vivid modeling and lifelike scenes. The works are at once realistic and exploratory, and even possess the solidity of Van Gogh’s Loom or Potato Eaters. Sadly, all of these studies are now lost. According to Tang Zhigang, he loaned them to a person of poor character, and they were never returned. It is a real pity. The military actively encouraged creativity in painting at the time, much like their later support for talent in the performing arts. In 1985, Tang Zhigang worked together with painter Shang Ding. At the time, Shang Ding’s large oil painting Continuous Battle was already quite famous. Tang Zhigang’s oil painting Well, depicting military life in the south, had been featured in the National Fine Arts Exhibition, and was, for the first time, published in the national journal Fine Arts. At the same time, his Army Horses series had been chosen for publication in the journal National Defense Arts and Culture. This was a fruitful year for him. Not necessarily in this order, Tang Zhigang’s PLA Academy of Art graduate thesis February, and the All-Army Creative Prize-winning Soul of Soldiers were also published in Fine Arts in a stroke of great fortune. In the 1980s, his creativity flowed smoothly, and his works were numerous, providing him with the conditions for a change in his career path, and the opportunity to study at the Nanjing University of the Arts and the PLA Academy of Art.

Many of his paintings from this period are no longer in his possession. But his works Physical Examination, Slaughtering Pigs, Cookhouse, Chess Battle, Exercises and Common Classes, as well as Weekend on the Battlefront, featured in this exhibition, left an impression when I visited his studio in the 1990s and saw the originals. These paintings were once again military-themed realist works, but they were different from the courageous, well-fed, red, bright and luminescent leaders and heroes. It was as if he had an ambition to place the soldier’s life within a head-on gaze, to place soldiers on a level with the farmers in the fields, the workers in the factories and the students in the fields, and to present them through the art form of oil painting. Let us call this style realism. But China’s revolutionary realism has always been subjective, lofty, a dogma of relentless battle against the enemy. This was not a personal thing, but on orders from the powers that be, from Lenin’s The State and Revolution, from the spread of Soviet-style politics that produced the Prague Spring and Pol Pot… This is something completely different from the great Russian realist tradition. Russia has Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, about soldiers and rebellion, and Vasily Surikov’s Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy… The Soviet period also had Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and the war-themed works of Arkady Plastov and Yuri Bondarev, whose sense of presence was palpable. But once it was imitated, it became dogma. Even The Occupation of the Presidential Palace is a comedy of mirror symmetry. Of course, Western realism was proposed by Honoré de Balzac. In his introduction to The Human Comedy, he wrote that he wanted to create a true picture of human manners. This intention seems to also be concealed within the paintings of Tang Zhigang. Thus, in his aesthetic leanings, he feels that the expansion of utopia needs to return to simplicity and truth. Looking at his works from this period, we see that his Well and February both show a bit of Soviet School influence. This was at the height of students studying overseas in the Soviet Union, and of ideology. Here we can draw from existentialist conditionalism and the limits of free choice in a system. I saw his classroom work created at the PLA Academy. They were figure studies in the Chistyakov style, very meticulous, and lacking in sincere emotion and vitality. Tang Zhigang was quite different as soon as he left the classroom. For example, the oil painting Weekend on the Battlefront, which captures the ordinary side of a military base, depicts one soldier laying down and listening to the radio, another with his head down as he writes home. Others read the newspaper or play cards. The details are rich, and it is a sincere, relaxed painting. It is no surprise that famous army watercolor painter Lin Ling would praise this painting. It approaches the natural intimacy of his own paintings, but in a different way. Mei Xiaoqing, painter of Crossing a Thousand Li of Highland Snow, felt that the soldiers in this painting were too loose, and fought against this painting’s official selection. This artwork is still here, and it truly does present the relaxed atmosphere of a military base. Tang’s Exercises, Slaughtering Pigs and Physical Examination were painted while he was in Beijing. When he painted these paintings, he did not enjoy the conditions of the likes of He Kongde, who could arrange models, scenes and props to ensure a reliable result. Instead, he relied on memory to construct the figures (something he picked up from Wang Baoming), lay out the scenes and present his sense of beauty, inching toward completion one step at a time. Tang Zhigang says this is in part due to his practice, while in the military, of painting a few soldier portraits each day, and often heading into the countryside and sketching the local minority peoples, practicing his basic skills and accumulating material. This is why these paintings came so easy to him, and he was able to present a different kind of atmosphere in the military base. It is no wonder why, when it comes to learning attitudes and creative methods, Tang Zhigang has always felt he taught himself. Looking at his works, we do not see the academy formula. His own path is rather free and open. When discussing his painting of Exercises and Cookhouse, we should mention the influence of his studies at Nanjing, which opened his eyes to modern painting. In that case, it was Liu Haisu borrowing from Western modern painting, and going on to influence Chinese painters. As a result, we see a bit of the absurdity and even satirical tones of Fauvism in Tang Zhigang’s paintings. But when I look at Slaughtering Pigs and Physical Examination, I find a folksy and fun demeanor. It seems he was quite fond of Pieter Bruegel at the time. It makes me think of such famous Bruegel paintings as Peasant Wedding and Dark Day. But Tang says, at the time, he was studying the arabesque styles of Eugène Delacroix, and also liked Francisco Goya’s works. The great Goya, who was always transforming his style, certainly had a humorous influence on Tang Zhigang, some spark of enlightenment that came to him as he opened his eyes and accepted his inheritance. Here I will interrupt with two studies from his days at Nanjing, which will be exhibited here, Woman in Blue, and Life Study. Of the two, the former is rather stylized, the latter more natural and plain. Looking at Woman in Blue, it appears that Tang Zhigang diligently studied Matisse and the Fauvists. The colors, modeling and tone are all grasped quite well, with the colors particularly eye-catching. Meanwhile, I feel that Tang’s rendering of the woman in blue highlights human dignity. When you gaze at this painting, you inevitably feel respect for independent character. Meanwhile, Life Study seems to be distancing itself from shortcomings of the academy habit of working indoors, as well as the current prevailing practice of painting from photographs. Above, I discussed what he gained from his studies at Nanjing. When I interviewed Tang Zhigang, he also spoke of the outcome of his studies at the PLA Academy. He brought out some of the educational figure studies from that time to show me. They were all drawn very diligently, and gave his graduation thesis good qualities, which is demonstrated by the awards it won. Of course, during this period, Tang Zhigang saw the paintings of Latin American artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and found inspiration there. He also learned about the German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann and Neo-Expressionist painter Jorg Immendorf. These were sources of inspiration and opening on his realist path, and things he emphasized in our discussion.

I will stop here to mention Tang Zhigang’s trip to the front lines at Laoshan during the Sino-Vietnamese War, and the Third Level Service Medal he received on his return.

While he was in Beijing, his painting activity temporarily ceased for a time. During this period, he engaged in reflection, studied English, pondered leaving the country, and dated a girl… It seems the unrest outside upset his painting order, while the love he found supplemented something. Participation and observation of history are essential to judgments of conscience and character. I am saying that these things influence everyone. There is no point in pretending otherwise. Tang Zhigang’s painting story would continue. New sprouts were emerging in his consciousness. When we see in the archival materials that during the early 1990s, he persisted in painting and drawing figures, it shows that he still had a strong drive to paint. He would apply the fruits of this practice to his creations. After this, we see a transition (he had no direct connections to the 85 New Wave) and a new face in his painting. Looking at The Mountains Are Small from this Vantage, Hunting, Playing Basketball and Caught in the Act, as well as the fairy tale work in the style of Rousseau, we see that he was striving to cast off the patterns of the past and moving forward through poetic imagination and pure painterly patterns. These paintings better highlight the sense of narrative motion. They incorporate the warping and coarseness of Primitivism and Latin American painting, while the form and content have no connections to his military works. These are entirely exercises and ventures in modern painting. These paintings distort and ape reality, and can be described as radiantly different. But Tang Zhigang is someone who deeply understands and is sensitive to the system, and always itched to return to reality.

In that period, I do not know if Tang Zhigang read the novel The Good Soldier Schweik by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek, or the film by the same name. The film was in theaters at the time, and many people saw it. It paints a very satirical picture, something not found in the catalogues of such Chinese painters as Feng Zikai, Zhang Leping or Ding Cong. Hašek uses the image of the idiotic young soldier Schweik, always the good person who is constantly getting into trouble and causing problems, situations where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to reveal many evils of the Austro-Hungarian Army, sparking deep indignation. I have read this book many times, and likewise plan to look back on the changes that took place in Tang Zhigang’s painting after he paused and began again.

Zou Kunling

October 29, 2018