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Yu Youhan’s Personal History with Chairman Mao

Yu Youhan (b. Shanghai, 1943) is widely considered the father of abstract painting and Political Pop in China. A longtime teacher of art in Shanghai, Yu has no wish to pursue an interdisciplinary or international practice, as many artists of his generation do. In this conversation, he talks about his life during the Cultural Revolution and the impact those experiences have had on his art. In the 1980s he began an ongoing series of circle paintings relating to the Dao concept of the universe. His Pop-style paintings from the late 1980s have a decorative aspect derived from folk art, and his figurative paintings represent both the history of China and his own personal history.

Here, Yu reveals how intertwined personal and national histories can be. Perhaps it is fair to say that Yu’s work comes out of a single conviction: namely, that art should reflect societal change.

Author

Yuchieh li

Yu-Chieh Li

Former Andrew W. Mellon C-MAP Fellow at The Museum of Modern Art Yu-Chieh Li was the Andrew W. Mellon C-MAP Fellow for the C-MAP Asia group from October 2013 to September 2015. At the Museum, she was a co-editor of post and organized... Read more »
Yu 1984

Yu Youhan 余友涵

Yu Youhan (born in Shanghai, China in 1943), is an artist working and residing in Shanghai. In 1970, Yu graduated from the Central Academy of Art and Design, Beijing, and... Read more »
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Yu Youhan’s Personal History with Chairman Mao

Yu Youhan (b. Shanghai, 1943) is widely considered the father of abstract painting and Political Pop in China. A longtime teacher of art in Shanghai, Yu has no wish to pursue an interdisciplinary or international practice, as many artists of his generation do. In this conversation, he talks about his life during the Cultural Revolution and the impact those experiences have had on his art. In the 1980s he began an ongoing series of circle paintings relating to the Dao concept of the universe. His Pop-style paintings from the late 1980s have a decorative aspect derived from folk art, and his figurative paintings represent both the history of China and his own personal history.

Here, Yu reveals how intertwined personal and national histories can be. Perhaps it is fair to say that Yu’s work comes out of a single conviction: namely, that art should reflect societal change.

Show More

Yu Youhan (b. Shanghai, 1943) is widely considered the father of abstract painting and Political Pop in China. A longtime teacher of art in Shanghai, Yu has no wish to pursue an interdisciplinary or international practice, as many artists of his generation do. In this conversation, he talks about his life during the Cultural Revolution and the impact those experiences have had on his art. In the 1980s he began an ongoing series of circle paintings relating to the Dao concept of the universe. His Pop-style paintings from the late 1980s have a decorative aspect derived from folk art, and his figurative paintings represent both the history of China and his own personal history.

Here, Yu reveals how intertwined personal and national histories can be. Perhaps it is fair to say that Yu’s work comes out of a single conviction: namely, that art should reflect societal change.

The interview was conducted in Yu Youhan’s Studio, Shanghai, June 28, 2014. Edited and translated by Yu-Chieh Li. The video interview in Chinese is available here.

Part I: Images of Mao Zedong

Yu Youhan: Depicting or portraying Mao Zedong is still taboo in China.

Yu-Chieh Li: Really? So your paintings of Chairman Mao have never been shown in China?

1 waving mao
Yu Youhan. The Waving Mao. 1990. Acrylic on canvas. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Yu: The Yuan Space in Beijing showed my solo exhibition Yi Ban (One Spot). To avoid censorship and crowds, one room [hung with paintings of Mao Zedong] was open only to special guests who had made reservations.

2. mao western series
Yu Youhan. A Packet Western Art History about Mao—“Foreign Mao” Series. 2000–2005. Acrylic on canvas. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Li: Why did you join the People’s Liberation Army?

Yu: It was the Difficult Three Year Period [the Great Chinese Famine, 1959–61] and we had nothing to eat. I was in poor health. I was growing, but I was as thin as a soybean sprout. At that time I was preparing for university entrance exams and I heard that my family background might have a negative impact on my application. My family belonged to the middle class, which was not the worst rank. The five least favored categories under the socialist system in China were landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists. My family ranked somewhat above those five lowest ranks.

Li: You were not in such misery as they were.

Yu: Right. However I still wouldn’t have had the chance to study at a good university. Even if I was admitted to a good one, I would probably not have been able to graduate because of my bad health. At that time I also heard there was a new policy to send young people to the countryside to perform physical labor. These circumstances were not very promising for me.

My mother had psychological problems and required medication to control her disease. There was a period when the employees in my father’s factory all had to undergo socialist re-education. My father was so busy that he didn’t have time to get my mother’s medicine. Afterward, her condition deteriorated. In 1958 or 1959, she wanted to pay me 50 cents to mop the floor. I refused, saying I wasn’t able to do it. It wasn’t about the money. I was dizzy the whole time and couldn’t do that kind of work. I thought if I were sent to the countryside in this condition, I wouldn’t survive. Mainland China and Taiwan were engaged in a cold war at that time. The Taiwanese Chiang Kai-shek planned to liberate the mainland. About then a friend of my neighbor’s was visiting. He was serving in the Liberation Army. I asked him how life in the army was, and he said it was not bad. His description made it seem better than mopping the floor at home. I was interested because I thought I wouldn’t get into a good university, and I couldn’t withstand physical labor, so the only way out was to join the army. This decision was half opportunistic, half forced by life. I served in the army for three-and-a-half years, from August 1961 to January 1965. Afterwards, I was admitted to the department of ceramics at the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts.

Li: How did you prepare for your entrance exams?

Yu: I practiced with a good friend, who was my neighbor. His father painted very well, basically in the style of Fauvism. Furthermore, he was from Sichuan, so he incorporated motifs from folk art and Chinese culture in his art and combined them very well. And he was an autodidact. Later on he became a Communist underground worker. Of course we didn’t know anything about it—not even his family knew. On the surface he appeared to be a painter.

Li: So you studied painting with his son?

Yu: Kind of. The son was my friend and his father’s paintings hung on the walls of their house and inspired me a lot. My friend was labeled a counter-revolutionary. Since the father was an underground Communist, he couldn’t prove that his family was innocent. We hung out a lot together before I served in the army. I loved painting and he did too because he was influenced by his father as I was. He played violin and studied English. So he was a good teacher to me. I remember that we both visited good exhibitions together in Shanghai. I was also able to read books from his collection.

Li: You went to the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing from 1965 to 1973. You were criticized in a big-character poster. What happened?

Yu: It was just slander. The poster’s message accused me of proclaiming “Long live the Chinese Nationalist Party [Guomingdang]” while wearing the yellow soldier’s uniform [a uniform of the People’s Liberation Army]. This was not possible.

Li: And you were sent to a labor camp?

Yu: No. I still lived a normal life. I ate in the school cafeteria—this was during the Cultural Revolution, so we didn’t have classes—but I was alone and I felt very wronged. I didn’t do anything that I was accused of—such as “Using Madame Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s theory to stand against Communism.” Do you think these two things are connected at all? These people just want to ingratiate themselves with the chiefs, so they made all kinds of absurd accusations.

Even Chairman Mao recognized that there was a problem with the Criticize the Bourgeois Reactionary Line campaign. That happened when Mao realized that the party leaders were at fault and were screwing up the Communist Party.

Li: You also did some propaganda paintings in Beijing. Did you want to prove your innocence?

Yu: I did that because I admired Chairman Mao back then. Some artist friends and I went to Tiananmen Square and made propaganda paintings there. There were two concrete walls used for propaganda slogans—they were usually written in white on a red background. We attached 55 sheets of paper together, creating a huge surface on which we painted Chairman Mao and Lin Biao standing in a tower on Tiananmen Square. Mao was leaning against a white fence and seemed to be waving; Lin Biao was holding a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong. We used a bamboo ladder to attach the big poster on the wall.

Li: It seems that you greatly admired Chairman Mao. Did you stop admiring him later on?

Yu: We were disappointed by him. My father read in the newspaper that many cadres were taken down, including Liu Shaoqi, who was the president. He told me he had heard that Mao thought everyone was bad, including Premier Zhou Enlai. What he said to me actually represented public opinion: why would Mao take down all the Party leaders? Hadn’t we been taught how good the Communist Party members were, so much better than the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomingdang)? We were very confused by the fact that the Communists could not even explain to their people why the party was good. And then the Gang of Four, including Jiang Qing, stood against Zhou, and we thought things were getting weird.

Li: Has your art been influenced by your experiences during the Cultural Revolution?

Yu: Of course! I revealed many issues implicitly in my work. For example I painted a red flag that is dirty.

Li: Didn’t you paint in a decorative way?

Yu: Yes.

Li: But isn’t that a way to depoliticize?

Yu: To depoliticize is to politicize. Actually our people were very ignorant of our social and political conditions. For example, we learned only much later that the Great Famine was caused by humans, by the leader’s bad policies. You know this disaster that we sometimes call “emitting the satellite (fang weixing)”? Government officials exaggerated the abundance of the harvest—Mao believed that our country was rich. He planned to give two hundred thousand tons of grain to Albania—this is totally infeasible. Mao wanted to become the leader of the International Communist Movement, so he supported the Great Leap Forward.

Li: When you use colors, are different colors equal to you? Is red as important as blue, or does red symbolize anything?

2b. mao birthday
Yu Youhan. Mao’s Birthday. 1994. Oil on board. © 2015 Yu Youhan.

Yu: You cannot say red means nothing. It’s the color of celebration, it creates a positive atmosphere. Mao’s Birthday is greenish, so it might get me into trouble. The color red dominated the Cultural Revolution’s visual culture. When I painted Mao’s Birthday, Mao would have been 100 years old if he had still been alive. I added lots of flowers to show he was powerful. In Mao and the Statue of Liberty, I used very simple lines. Although the colors are harmonious, they depict two figures representing Eastern and Western values, socialism and liberalism, which represent the two political systems nowadays.

3.mao liberty 1
Yu Youhan. Mao and the Statue of Liberty. 1994. Oil on board. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Look at this one—a collage of various colors with red flowers and a thermos bottle. Remember that in the 1950s we were very poor. The annual bonus you received was not money but a large red flower or a drinking mug. Those are the kinds of gifts people received from their work units. It’s merely a memory. I am neither nostalgic nor bitter about it.

4. the50s 1
Yu Youhan. The 1950s. 1994. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Li: It’s your personal history.

Yu: Yes. Or you can say, a history of our republic.

Pop thermos 1988
Yu Youhan. Thermos. 1988. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Li: This is your first work in the style of Pop art. When did you do this?

Yu: In 1988.

Li: Is this earlier than your paintings of Chairman Mao?

6. better
Yu Youhan. We Will Be Better. 1995. Acrylic on canvas. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Yu: This is probably earlier, from a transitional period when I turned from abstraction to Pop. Look. In this painting you see gifts sent by farmers to our leader: tobacco, pears, and a big pumpkin. Written on this piece of red paper are the words “for Chairman Mao.” The slogan says, “We will become better and better, while our enemies become worse and worse.” This contradicts reality because we were really poor and wouldn’t be able to achieve Mao’s great goals. At that time there was even a slogan saying that if we possessed food and steel we could achieve anything—which was very absurd. The whole country misunderstood modernization and had unrealistic hopes.

Part 2: Abstraction

Li: Was Chen Zhen one of your students?

Yu: Yes, he was in my first class. But I didn’t teach him much. I merely discussed with him. He wrote me a letter after graduation, when he was teaching at Shanghai Theater Academy. He said he respected me a lot at Shanghai Academy of Arts and Crafts.

When I did my circle paintings in the 1980s, he was developing another kind of abstraction consisting of an expansive field of energy that we call qi. My abstraction was based on a square or round motif. He debated with me, arguing that his abstraction was better than mine, because an energy field is flexible and can be extended beyond the canvas. I thought, okay, maybe you are right, but my circle represents the universe. It is as if I am observing the world through a magnifier. In China we have a proverb that says you can imagine the appearance of a leopard by observing one of its spots. When we had this discussion, Chen was already sick.

7. circle
Yu Youhan. 1986–5. 1986. Acrylic on canvas. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Li: Yes, he did Qi: Flottant after he became ill.

Yu: That’s right.

Li: You started to paint abstractly in the 1980s, and you began the circle series in late 1984, right?

Yu: Yes. Because I used Laozi’s theory.

Li: If the circle symbolizes something, maybe it’s not abstract, since there are representational meanings attached to it.

Yu: Right, this painting, for example, is not totally abstract. It depicts an orchestra performing a symphony. I wanted to depict music.

Li: As Wassily Kandinsky did.

Yu: Right. You can feel it? This is my early abstraction. It has something to do with representational painting, doesn’t it?

8.1980 12
Yu Youhan. Concert. 1980. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Li: It’s interesting that you were able to make abstract paintings during that time. Does that have something to do with the loosening of censorship after the Cultural Revolution?

Yu: Right. Chairman Mao passed away in 1976. There was a transitional period from 1976 to 1978. The Party leaders were in conflict with each other. The lower-ranked leaders clung to Mao’s teachings and policies. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping started his open door policy, which meant that we started to adopt capitalism.

Li: Right. Afterward, you and a group of friends did the Ou Tu exhibition in Shanghai. There was a second Ou Tu show in 1988, at which you presented The Singing Ms. Teressa Teng, a sculptural assemblage composed of a stool and other found materials. Why did you stop making sculpture after that?

Yu: Because I love painting more. I think that after the invention of bikes, cars, and airplanes, people still need to walk. Walking is always normal and legitimate.

Li: What kind of role did you play in the so-called ’85 New Wave. Do you consider yourself one of the participants?

Yu: You might say that. I have a theory about grass: every spring new grass grows in the garden. But don’t take yourself as the leader of grass. The grass is there because of the good timing, suitable temperature and the earth’s rotation. I think two to three years after Mao passed away, all painters in China wanted to experiment. So the ’85 New Wave artists did not actually create anything new. They were involved in a natural development.

Li: You made some paintings about the Tiananmen incident after 1989?

Yu: Right. Two: one is the bike; the other is Q.

9. img 7462
Yu Youhan. Q. 1989. Acrylic on canvas. © 2015 Yu Youhan
10. bicycle
Yu Youhan. Flowery Bicycle. 1989. © 2015 Yu Youhan

Li: Both the Flowery Bicycle and Mother (Q) present a pessimistic feeling. Can you talk a little bit about the bike?

Yu: It’s an old bicycle. We Shanghainese call this type “the old tank.” It’s an older type of bike, made of rough iron, not very well constructed. It was mostly used by immigrant workers, who would ride it to go grocery shopping or transport goods. There is a cynical meaning in it, because I decorated it with flowers. In other words, I think this bike symbolizes the socialist system: in socialist culture you have all kinds of propaganda comparable to those flowery motifs.

Li: In 1993 you participated in several big international shows, including the Venice Biennale, China Avantgarde in Berlin, and China’s New Art, Post-1989 in Hong Kong. How did the curators of those exhibitions find you?

Yu Youhan’s painting Chairman Mao in Discussion with the Peasants of Shaoshan (1999) on the cover of China Avantgarde

Yu: I think this had something to do with Li Xianting and some other art critics of his generation. When foreign curators came to China, they asked Chinese curators to make introductions. Hans van Dijk and Andreas Schmid both did a lot of research in Shanghai. After the show in Berlin, Hans opened a gallery in Beijing.

Li: Do you think it’s adequate to describe you and other artists as avant-garde artists?

Yu: I think it’s fine. The concept of contemporary art comes from Western thought. At a time when contemporary art theory was already well developed in the West, we were still doing traditional landscape paintings.

Li: So you think it’s fine that you are categorized in the art world as avant-garde, abstract, or Pop?

Yu: I think these terms are all fine. I think of myself first of all as an art lover; secondly I am a painter.

Li: Does your art have to reflect society?

Yu: My art should reflect society and my mind. My mind is inspired by society. For example, I might feel sad, but I cannot articulate it explicitly. I can implicitly present some of the pessimistic feelings in my painting process, but not too much. I want to be faithful to my art. I don’t have to pay attention to new trends in New York when I paint each stroke. The merging of civilizations is a slow process. Although I have lived from the 1940s until now, I have mostly painted China’s social memory of the 1970s and 1980s. What I paint has to be natural and make sense of my life experience. That’s it.

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