The arrival of the Manchu Qingdynasty did not disrupt the continuity of Chinese painting,
but the art became wide open to many influences. It included the Italian Castiglione (Lang
Shi-ning in Chinese) who specialized in horses, dogs and flowers under imperial patronage,
and individualists such as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, who objected to derivative art
and sought a more distinctive approach to subject and style.
Even today, Chinese art schools emphasize traditional techniques, but many students have
been quick to plug themselves into international trends; at its best, this leads to art that is
technically proficient and conceptually strong. Recent decades of seismic change in China
has, in keeping with the rules of development, seen a recent shift towards more traditional
forms of painting, or at least the weaving of the traditional into the contemporary. It has led
to works from artists such as Zhang Daqian commanding huge prices at auction.
Contemporaryart is flourishing in Beijing, and well worth checking out. The best galleries
are owned by expats, and Chinese art is seen as an attractive investment by foreign buyers.
Galleries in the city centre are rather more commercial than those in the suburban artsy areas,
tending to focus on selling paintings rather than making a splash with a themed show. Still,
there are some that display interesting and challenging work.
The scene began in earnest in the 1990s with a group who, with little chance of selling
their work - or even exhibiting - banded together to form an arts village in the suburbs of
Beijing, near the old Summer Palace. These artists developed a school of painting that ex-
pressed their individualism and their sceptical, often ironic and jaundiced view of contempor-
ary China; this was, of course, the generation that had seen its dreams of change shot down at
Tian'anmen Square. Nurtured by curator Li Xianting , known as “the Godfather of Chinese
art”, as well as sympathetic foreign collectors, they built the foundations of the art scene as it
The most famous of these so-called cynical realists is Fang Lijun , whose images of dis-
embodied heads against desolate landscapes are some of the most characteristic images of
modern Chinese art. Other art stars who began their career here include Yue Minjun , who
paints sinister laughing figures, and the satirists Wang Jinsong and Song Yonghong .
Artists such as Wang Guangyi developed a second, distinctly Chinese school of art called
political pop , where the powerful iconography of the Cultural Revolution was co-opted to
celebrate consumerism - workers wave iPods instead of Little Red Books . This kind of thing,
perennially popular with foreign visitors, is regarded these days as pretty hackneyed in Ch-
ina. Rather more interesting was the deliberately brash “ gaudyart ” movement of the 1990s,
whose aesthetic celebrated the tacky and vulgar; look out for XuYihui 's ceramic confections
and the Luo Brothers ' kitsch extravaganzas.