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Modern Chinese Artists, A Biographical Dictionary

by Michael Sullivan
University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006
274 pp., illus. 80 b/w. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 0-520-24449-8.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Western attitude to modern Chinese art began to change in the 1950’s with the acquisition of fine collections by curators in France and Switzerland. Before that, practically only safe traditional painting, ‘guohua’, which fit in the global arts landscape as exotic and ‘oriental’, was shown.

In the late 70’s, things changed rapidly. The United States government lifted the embargo on the import of Chinese goods in 1972, and in China the cultural climate began to thaw after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. In Europe and America, museums began to collect modern Chinese art, galleries sprang up, and major works were auctioned. At present, even the least informed art lovers or exhibition goers has at least vague ideas about the vitality of the Chinese art scene, even if they can’t remember a single artists’ name or recognise any specific work. When asked, most people will probably point to Shanghai as the main center of production, and they might even have visited the Biennial there, but a further understanding of what is actually going on remains the realm of a limited group of specialised scholars, curators, and collectors. Again, however, things are rapidly changing. In the wake of the booming economy and the opening up of the Chinese market, Western attention is massively drawn to the arts as well, and the traditional opinion that Chinese artists are either traditional — if excellent - landscape painters or meagre followers of American and European trends are rapidly evaporating.

Michael Sullivan has been following Chinese artists since the Second World War and published a first biographical index in 1959 (Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century). He had left China in 1946 and got most of his information from first-hand knowledge and from his correspondence with his Chinese painter friend Pang Xunqin. The book listed 261 artists. Only a handful of biographical books have been published since, and very few of them in English. Sullivan’s Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China (1996) already included more than 800 entries. Well aware of the important omissions and a number of errors, he set out to revise the list and chose to publish it in a separate volume for the use of scholars, curators, collectors, museums, dealers, and auction houses.

"The artists chosen for inclusion […] are those who attained some reputation in China in the twentieth century and opening years of the twenty-first, […] and those whose works are likely to appear in collections, exhibitions, and auctions abroad. Only artists who grew up, or were trained, in China are included, even if they subsequently went abroad to work during, for instance, the diaspora of the 1980s and ‘90s." (p. xi-xii).

The entries are listed alphabetically on both Chinese last names and Westernised versions (e.g. Bao Ailun is also listed under Ellen Pau). Names are also given in Chinese characters. Most entries include place and year of birth, place of training, place of residence, major exhibitions, and a general indication of what kind of works the artist has been producing, e.g. oil painting, guohua, installation, etc. A very helpful list of the names of the principal art academies has been included as well, since they have a tendency to change names with every turn of the political tide in the country. Some 80 pictures illustrate the book.



Updated 1st November 2006

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