Portrait of a painter

by Jason Lee on February 14, 2014

Liu Yang. Photo: Courtesy of Liu Yang

Weathered, thin and small of stature with a dark face and hair reaching down to his neck, physically speaking there is nothing that sets Liu Yang apart from other veteran artisans. However, his gift at painting portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong has made him a standout among painters.

At 56 years of age this year, Liu Yang has spent most of his career painting the founder of the People’s Republic of China, including the portrait that hung on the Tiananmen Gate at the heart of Beijing in 1979, one of the most recognizable images among his works.

The 4.6-by-6 meter portrait, replaced a year later, was one of Liu’s proudest accomplishments. At the young age of 22, Liu finished the portrait after nearly two months of work in a giant iron sheet shed behind the Tiananmen Rostrum during a sweltering hot summer.

“No matter which corner of Tiananmen Square you stand on, you will find that Chairman Mao is staring at you,” Liu said proudly.

Destiny

Liu was born to a military family in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in August 1957. Perhaps inheriting artistic genes from his mother, an art soldier, Liu said he developed a great interest in drawing as a child. Lacking brush or paper, he took every opportunity to draw on the ground with chalk. Finally, at the age of 7, he moved to Beijing with his family.

Although his interest in art continued throughout his childhood, he didn’t receive any professional training until 1975 when the Beijing Fine Arts Company, which at the time was mainly responsible for painting portraits of Chairman Mao, decided to recruit young apprentices to carry on the skill and help meet the flood of nationwide orders the company was receiving.

After a strict family background check, interviews and physical examinations, 10 out of 150 candidates recommended by Beijing schools were chosen. Among them numbered Liu, who was renowned among his classmates for his gift in drawing blackboard newspapers and Red Guard campaign posters.

“I was so excited that I could make painting a lifetime career,” he recalled. But it wasn’t long before he felt the stress that came with this career choice. They were only permitted to paint Communist leaders and were viewed more as craftsmen than actual artists.

“At the time ‘artist’ was associated with the idea of a corrupt bourgeoisie. This is also the reason they didn’t select apprentices from art institutes,” said Liu. “Even more, painting Chairman Mao was rather stressful since any tiny error or flaw could be seen as an anti-revolutionary crime.”

After three years of study with Wang Guodong, the former painter of Mao’s portrait for Tiananmen, apprentices underwent a final test after which Liu’s portrait of Mao was selected by Wang and other judges. It was then that he was tasked to paint Mao’s 1979 Tiananmen portrait, a huge deal as that year marked the 30th anniversary of the country’s founding and only a year had passed since China announced its new policy of reform and opening up.

However, with the new leadership’s move to abolish the “cult of personality” surrounding Mao in late 1970s, demand for Mao portraits dropped considerably. Luckily, demand for advertisements and posters was booming and so Liu and his colleagues switched to the advertisement department, a move that saw his salary increase several times over the 30 yuan a month he was earning in 1979.

Looking to spend more time working on portraits, Liu quit the company in 1997. However, in 1999 his former employer called him back so he could paint the portrait of then leader Jiang Zeming which would be used in the National Day parade that year.

A Chairman Mao portrait titled Chinese Spirit painted by Liu Yang. Photo: Courtesy of Liu Yang

Beyond business

Over the years Liu’s works have been widely recognized and pursued by museums, memorial halls and entrepreneurs. The minimum price for a Mao portrait runs 200,000 yuan. Millionaires have sponsored his exhibitions and some have even offered to pay him to paint portraits for themselves.

“I don’t just say yes to anybody. In addition to payment I also consider the person’s contributions, background and appearance first. His image should be a positive one,” he noted.

Once, some suggested he enter mass production by employing art students to copy his works. However, after a month trial he discovered that this wouldn’t work. “The portraits by the students no longer looked like Chairman Mao. It’s not easy to paint such a figure who is so ingrained in people’s minds.”

Some people also began printing his work, but it turned out that few people were willing to buy printed versions even at only several hundred yuan. “People value painted works, which are unique,” he said.

Currently he paints nearly 10 portraits on average every year. Nearly half of these are sent to friends or exhibits as gifts, he explained.

“Don’t take the brush as a printing machine or money-making tool,” he said. While many students have requested to become his apprentice, he has not officially accepted anyone. “The young guys now tend to gain instant benefit. I remember one time a student asked ‘how much can I earn after being your apprentice for two years?’”

In addition to Chairman Mao, Liu has also painted other former leaders such as Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and Deng Xiaoping. Last year, based on an image he chose on the Internet, he spent two months finishing a 88-by-117 centimeter portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Many businessmen or officials purchased portraits from him for gifts to superiors. Last year, an entrepreneur put in an order for Chairman Mao portraits to the tune of 7 million yuan. However, the purchaser withdrew the order soon after Xi announced a crackdown on gift giving among Party and government officials.

“It’s a great financial loss to me. But I don’t feel sorry. The corruption has spread to vital organs of political and military circles, hard-line anti-graft campaigns are essential,” he noted.

By Huang Jingjing of the Global Times

 

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