The thousand peasant painters of Huhsien County, China, seem to "boundlessly love socialism" and the thoughts of Chairman Mao who, in an expansive mood, once said, "Let a hundred flowers blossom."
Of course, he did not ask for differing varieties. The modern Chinese paintings that go on public view today at Howard University's Gallery of Art are without exception indefatigably rosy.
The productive peasants in them are happy, happy, happy. One can almost hear them whistle while they work. Their harvests are abundant, their padded clothes are spotless and you can tell that they have perfect teeth because they smile all the time. So do their happy chickens, their horses and their pigs.
One rose is a treat, and a dozen are delightful, but a truckload of the things, like whelm with cloying charm.
These hard working peasants, who labor all day at the commune and do art "in spare time only," certainly know how to paint. We are told that they are amateurs, but they are not beginners. Ma Ya-li must have practiced painting a hundred chicken pictures before she did the lovely one that is on display.
These paintings do not waver, they are free of doubt. "They sing the praises of the great leader Chairman Mao," the catalogue inform us, "they are filled with aspirations for a bright future and rejoicings over the present life." Politically and technically these paintings are correct.
And they please the eye. A thousand tiny details are presented with meticulous exactitude: the scales of the carp leaping in the fishpond; the squirming of the silk worms; the treads of tractor tires, the handles of the hand grenades. Though full of information, the paintings now at Howard are never merely catalogues. Their patterns are so decorative, their compositions so strongly geometrical, that they almost never splinter into busyness.
Huhsien County's peasants breed horses, pigs and chickens, they raise gerlic, herbs, feedgrains, peaches and persimmons, they string electric wires and they dig deep wells. Since the Great Leap Forward, in Huhsien County, Shensi Province, painting has become an industry as well. The county is not large, it has a population of 430,000. Its painters, we are told, have in recent years "created 70,000 works of art."
They are clearly building on an old tradition, Huhsien County is well known for its papercuts and woodblocks, and for the pictures that are hung at New Year's outside its front doors.
This sort of propaganda is as propaganda goes, minimally bothersome. It is not virulent; it does not urge the mind to hatred. It is entertaining, colorful, informative and cheery. And it does not pretend to portary things as they are.
"These works," observes the cataloguer, "are not mere reproductions of real life, but the result of its typification, artistic elevation and crystallization."
Norman Rockwell's warming pictures of sweet-tempered cops and of happy U.S. families at Thanksgiving dinner might seem to Chinese eyes equally idealized. The Chinese factories and communes that the peasant suffering, garbage and oppression, but then so are the kitchens seen in our television ads.
The Chinese are attempting to "abolish the distinction between manual workers and brain workers," and the paintings on display are weapons in that war. With their reiterated motifs and repetitious brushstrokes, they are as full of labor as they are of though.
Though there are 80 paintings here - by scores of different painters - this exhibition seems at first glance a three-or four-man show. The painters of the Orient, unlike those of the West, rarely have been taught to flaunt wild originality. They seem content to labor within the confines of tradition, and those represented here seem to be aiming for similar effects. They use similar techniques, materials and compositions; and the stories that their compositions; and the stories that their paintings tell the pretty much the same.
They are titled "Spring Hoeing" or "Tending Sheep" or "Joy at Gathering a Bumper Crop of Cotton." Or "Autumn Harvesting." "Collecting Lotus Seeds and Roots," "Celebrating Good Harvest" "A Rich Maize Harvest" or "Store Grain Everywhere." Occasionally their subjects are not pastoral but political: "I love Chairman Hua," "We Love Chairman Hua," or "Announcement of the Two Great Happy Events in October, 1976." (One was Chairman Hua's appointment. The other was the fall of the Gang of Four.)
In the context of this show, a picture of a branch with blossoms, or of a misty landscape without workers, would be out of place.
This is the first show of contemporary art to be sent to the United States by the People's Republic of China. These peasant paintings already have been seen - by several hundred thousand people - in Paris, London, Stockholm and Toronto, and, since December, 1977, in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston.
The last Chinese show seen here, of archaeological treasures, was mounted with great splendor at the National Gallery of Art. This one has been installed instead in the small gallery at Howard. No local university has an exhibition budget smaller, or an exhibit program more lively and successful.
The installation of the Chinese Show, as usual at Howard, is trim and unpretentious. The exhibit was organized in conjunction with the U.S. China People's Friendship Association. It will remain on view through Oct. 29.