Stunning Art with a Sorrowful Provenance

(UPDATE: Due to popular demand, this exhibition has been extended until May 15, although not all paintings will remain on display.)

A major exhibition at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) is drawing busloads of visitors as its April 10th closing draws near.  The show – “Deng Tuo Donated Treasures of Ancient Chinese Paintings” – includes more than 140 ink works dating from the Song (960-1279) to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and is significant on multiple levels, its back-story as poignant as its art is powerful.

Deng Tuo (1912-1966) was a historian, writer, bureaucrat, Marxist theoretician, and committed Communist.  He served China’s Communist Party loyally for his entire adult life, working for much of that time as a professional journalist and eventually becoming chief editor of People’s Daily.  But Deng was a Communist in a Confucian mold.  He loved China’s traditional culture, and was a practicing poet, calligrapher, and art collector. And he believed in the concept of a loyal opposition, considering it his duty to speak out when he deemed the Party, or certain members of it, to be acting in error.

An expert in the history of famine relief – Deng’s main historical work is a 1937 volume called “A History of Famine Relief” – he had increasing reason to speak out (albeit obliquely) as Mao Zedong implemented the disastrous economic policies of the Great Leap Forward, which led to mass starvation in the late 1950s.  Deng opposed the excessive speed of ideologically motivated policy implementation and insisted that proper investigation should precede radical changes.  As Mao’s leadership became increasingly unpredictable, Deng Tuo became more overtly critical, although still writing under various pen names so as to preserve the appearance of Party unity.  Mao had him removed from his position as chief editor, but Deng kept on criticizing.  His essays were printed under the titles “Evening Chats” and “Three Family Village,” the latter series co-authored with Beijing Vice Mayor and historian Wu Han and Liao Mosha.

Beginning in the 1930s, Deng – aghast that so much Chinese art was being sold to overseas buyers or private collectors – began seeking out artworks and buying them himself.  He purchased exquisite works by Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Bada Shanren (1626-1705), and Zheng Xie (1693-1765).  He even managed to acquire the hand scroll “The Rocks and Bamboo” which is one of only two surviving works by the great Song official and poet Su Dongpo. (The other work is in Japan, stolen during World War II.)  In 1964, ever the loyal patriot, Deng donated his entire collection to the nation, and it ended up at NAMOC.  This is the first time it is being displayed in its entirety, after major conservation work detailed in a video that accompanies the stunning exhibition.

Not long after Deng donated his art collection to his country, the political tides turned red.  He was singled out for his veiled criticisms of Mao Zedong, called a “black hand,” “poisonous weed,” and “class enemy.”  More than 100 newspaper articles were published criticizing him and he was subject to unending pressure.  On the evening of May 16, 1966 he and his wife, Ding Yilan “embraced with our heads together and cried bitterly standing in the doorway of the bedroom.” The next night, sometime after midnight, Deng killed himself, apparently hoping his death would free his wife and five children from the burden of criticism that had fallen on him.  It didn’t, although they all survived the Cultural Revolution and saw their beloved husband and father posthumously “rehabilitated” on August 3, 1979.Deng’s essays were collected and republished in the 1980s and he was held up as a sort of model official – loyal to Communism and to the culture of traditional China.  (Not incidentally, just the sort of official China is currently hoping to promote.)

NAMOC’s exhibition is lovingly curated and, having run for three months, is of exceptional duration; most exhibitions at the flagship art museum run only for a week or so.  But, conspicuously absent is any of the back-story presented here – the Cultural Revolution is never even mentioned and the only indicator of Deng’s untimely death is the loaded date, 1966 – the start of the Cultural Revolution and, in China, a number that speaks a thousand words.

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