From the Masses to the Masses Press

Art works from the Cultural Revolution period of China's history are now on display at the Springville Museum of Art, giving a unique glimpse into the early years of Communist control in China and beyond.

In addition, the public premiere of the film "From the Masses to the Masses: An Artist in Mao's China," which documents the lives of the works' creators, is planned on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the museum in conjunction with the exhibit. The screening is open to the public.

Titled "From the Masses to the Masses: Art of the Yan’an Cave Artists Group," the exhibit includes approximately 60 pieces created with different mediums in a style known as "revolutionary romanticism." Yan’an, a city located in Shaanxi Province in northwestern China, was the Chinese Communists' revolutionary capital from 1936 to 1949.

Pieces in the collection were produced by artists in the Yan’an Cave Artists Group. It carried this name because of the many homes in the area that were literally created in the mountainside. The artists worked under the direction of artist Jin Zhilin.
The collection includes art works from the 1950s as well as art produced during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976). Other pieces date from the post-Cultural Revolution period (late 1970s to the early 1980s).

Dodge Billingsley, a director with the Salt Lake City-based Combat Films and Research and owner of pieces in the collection, said the art works all had a political purpose and were only exhibited in public places; they were not hung in private homes. "There was no public consumption of art during this period," Billingsley said.

Billingsley has traveled to China often with Brigham Young University political science professor Eric Hyer. With degrees in war studies, Billingsley said his interest in military themes first drew him to the art and he started collecting the pieces in 1999.
As he and Hyer found more examples of the art - some rolled up and hidden in artistsí homes for years - they became more and more interested in the pieces and their historical significance.

"As we started collecting this art, we started to realize that it was an interesting story," Billingsley said, one that could be the basis for a documentary film.

Billingsley ended up directing the film "From the Masses to the Masses" and Hyer, who teaches Chinese politics at BYU, acted as producer. "While we were collecting art, we were interviewing artists," Hyer said.

While the 60-minute film is somewhat biographical of the artists, it also weaves in the political context in which the artists worked, he said.

The art's purpose was basically to serve as propaganda. For example, one work shows different panels promoting the virtues of abiding by the country's one-child policy, while another work shows how the mechanization of agriculture could help increase productivity and raise workers' standard of living.

Mediums represented in the exhibit include wood cuts and watercolors. According to an information board at the exhibit, "Yan’an has a strong folk art tradition. Following the Maoist dictum of "learning from the masses," Jin required his students to go to the countryside and study local folk art with peasant artists. Jin's students incorporated Shaanxi folk art influences, such as paper cutting, into their wood block prints. The art in the collection reflects these elements of local folk art and the historical significance of the region."

One particularly interesting part of the exhibit shows two large wood cuts which, at first glance, appear to be identical depictions of a Mao follower gazing contentedly at a picture of Mao. However, one version of the picture was rejected by political censors, while the other was approved. The difference: the approved version is slightly different in color and a bright smile has appeared on the follower's face, showing that he is not only a loyal follower of Mao, but also a happy one.

"My interest in this is the connection between politics and art," Hyer said.

For some years, the Springville museum has cultivated an interest in displaying art created in Russia during the existence of the USSR. During that time, art was used in the USSR as a propaganda tool, said Springville Museum of Art Director Vern Swanson. The Chinese art now on display had a similar use although the culture was different, he said.

Placed at the beginning the exhibit of Chinese art is a piece by Russian artist Konstantin Mefodevich Maksimov. Maksimov traveled to China and taught Chinese pupils how to paint in the Socialist realism style, Swanson said, creating a connection between the museum's Russian art and the Chinese art now being displayed.

Hosting the Chinese exhibit has "helped us understand Russian art a little better," Swanson said.

This story appeared in the Springville Herald on page A1

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