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Tuesday, May 3, 2016, 09:17

History on canvas

By Lin Qi

Elderly painter Shen Yaoyi's exhibition in Beijing marks both the end of the Long March and the 95th anniversary of the Communist Party of China. Lin Qi reports.

History on canvas
Shen Yaoyi's paintings depicting the historic Long March are now on display at Beijing's National Art Museum of China. (Photos Provided To China Daily)

Chinese painter Shen Yaoyi has made the Long March the subject of his work over the past four decades.

His oil paintings, engravings and picture books re-create scenes from the tactical retreat of the Red Army to evade Kuomintang forces for two years starting in 1934. During the march, which included a series of movements through much of the country, the Communist troops traveled about 12,500 kilometers.

Shen, 73, a retired arts professor from the capital's Renmin University, is now showing dozens of his paintings at the National Art Museum of China.

In 2004, he had held a show of landscapes along the Long March at the same Beijing venue.

History on canvas

The ongoing exhibition commemorates the end of Long March eight decades ago, when three major factions of the Red Army united in Northwest China's Gansu province, surviving bitter struggles with the enemy and harsh natural surroundings. It also celebrates the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.

Shen's interest in the march was ignited in the 1960s while he was studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. At the time, he was sent to the People's Liberation Army for a short-term program. That was when he discovered a map showing the routes that the Red Army had taken during the march.

His Red Classic art series is based on five trips retracing itineraries of the Long March.

In 1975, he embarked on the first journey. He was then a teacher at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. In three months, he covered areas in East China's Jiangxi province, where the Long March had started, and in Shaanxi province in the country's northwest.

His travels inspired Shen to produce two oil paintings - Revolutionary Ideals Higher than Heaven and With Firm Strides We Start Again - that later became iconic pieces of the Red Classic series.

The first painting sold for 40 million yuan ($6.35 million) in 2012 at an art auction in Beijing and the other is part of the national art museum's collection.

The centerpiece of the current exhibition is Long March 1936, an album of some 600 drawings on leaves telling how Red Army units separately triumphed in several battles before merging in Gansu.

History on canvas
Shen Yaoyi, artist.

It took Shen two years to complete the album and is a sequel to The Earth's Red Flying Ribbon, an album he drew from 1988 to 1993, visualizing a namesake novel on the march by the late Chinese writer Wei Wei.

Shen executed the pieces combining approaches in oil painting and engraving with the lining technique of traditional Chinese painting.

"Cultural products that are completed quickly are now in big demand. But I'm a painter who needs a lot of time to focus on one thing," he says.

"At my age, I want to do what I like to do, and I'm not tired."

Another signature piece from Shen's Long March series on show is Zunyi Conference. In it, he shows a CPC meeting in Southwest China's Guizhou province in 1935.

He applied a gray tone to indicate both the cold weather at the conference location and how it mattered to the fate of the Red Army, which was then at a critical moment in the Long March.

Shen also shows many new landscapes in which he paints weeds. He sees in them an incarnation of the spirit of bravery and persistence that defined the Long March.

"I like observing weeds when I travel. They grow with great effort. And even when they wither, they stand tall.

"Weeds usually face a crisis of existence. This distinguishes them from other plants that grow with a false sense of self-importance," Shen says.

Wang Ming, director of Beijing Fine Art Academy, says Shen is like a film director who has presented the heroism of the Long March with mastery and a distinctive approach.

The academy has original drafts of The Earth's Red Flying Ribbon, and Wang says an exhibition to show them is being planned.

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