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Oils in the Frame

The latest and best oil paintings in China will be displayed in a major exhibition at the National Art Museum of China.

The exhibition, which will run from December 10 to 21, will feature 300 works selected from the 2,000 pieces shown at the third China Oil Painting exhibition this September at the museum. It will also include 25 works by renowned artists from the show's artistic committee.

The September exhibition was a comprehensive display of the development of oil paintings in China since 1994, the year the second national exhibition was held, said Zhu Naizheng, veteran artist with the Central Academy of Fine Arts, who is director of the show's artistic committee.

The 2,000 paintings on display were chosen from more than 10,000 recommended by artists' associations from 32 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions. The exhibition was hosted by the Ministry of Culture, the Chinese Artists' Association and Chinese Oil Painting Society.

The upcoming exhibition, a review of the September event, will show how Chinese oil painters are moving the art form forward, said Zhu.

"We can see from the representative works that the art form has matured in China," he said.

Oil paintings emerged in China in the 20th century with the introduction of Western styles and techniques, despite some earlier experiments and achievements by Chinese artists, Zhu said.

"People joked Chinese oil painters had given a complete review of all Western modern art schools in the past two decades," he said.

The works to be exhibited, however, incorporate individual thoughts and ethnic characteristics as the once-common practice of blindly copying popular Western styles wanes, said Zhu.

A simple and natural style is replacing earlier, ostentatious approaches.

About half of the works on show and more than half submitted by artists use a realist approach, said the show's artistic committee.

Among the most acclaimed is "Benmingnian" by Guo Runwen. The mid-sized oil on canvas portrays a woman in a red top and black dress leaning forward against a chair, offset by a black background.

The red threads around the woman's wrists show it is her benmingnian (her birth year, based on the 12-year Chinese cycle with each year named after different animals).

Tradition dictates that people wear red threads around their wrists for luck in such a year.

She looks as if she is peering at something unknown or uncertain.

Another interesting piece is "Reading" by Long Liyou. The artist adds patterns, wall carpets and dresses in a Chinese style to a scene reminiscent of a Dutch village. It shows a blonde farm wife reading, with her baby in a bed behind her, as cows feed in the pasture beyond the window.

"Revolutionary realism" and traditional themes like heroes and the war before 1949 are also pursued. Artist Qin Wenqing's "Beyond Limits" portrays a soldier rushing head-on, head high, teeth clenched and eyes almost shut.

The images and colors remind visitors of similar masterpieces created from the 1930s to the 1980s, but the artist's tough, exaggerated brushwork endows the work with a contemporary touch.

Chinese artists also follow modern art schools like abstractionism, but it seems few of their works are impressive enough for exhibition.

The works that will be displayed, however, should give art lovers hope. The vitality of the oil paintings rebuts the popular argument that the traditional art form is "dying" in China, said Zhu.

(China Daily December 3, 2003)

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