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Wednesday, November 18, 1998 Published at 13:19 GMT


Chinese lacquer work goes on show

The exhibition combines traditional with the revolutionary

BBC Arts Correspondent Nick Higham reports on an exhibiton of an unusual collection of Chinese art dating from the cultural revolution:

Arts Correspondent Nick Higham uncovers artwork from the Chinese cultural revolution
For centuries the Chinese have created intricate works of art out of lacquer. The artwork usually depicts traditional subjects like landscapes and legends.

But during Mao Tse Tung's cultural revolution the lacquer masters were encouraged to convey more modern subjects. Now, after years of neglect this unusual collection has been restored and has gone on show in London.

[ image: Artwork on show carved out of 200 layers of red lacquer and laden with jade and horn]
Artwork on show carved out of 200 layers of red lacquer and laden with jade and horn
A railway crosses a thousand kilometres along the western mountains of China - 10,000 soldiers died constructing it, but their achievements have been immortalised in a panel.

Carved out of 200 layers of red lacquer, the artwork is laden with jade and horn.

Peter Wain, a collector of Chinese art and the man responsible for bringing the lacquer work to London says that they are fine modern examples of the Chinese lacquer masters' art at work,

"They have used every single natural resource in producing them, so in addition to all the different layers of lacquer that they have carved through, they have applied the plaques with semi-precious stones such as jade, silver wire, and mother of pearl.

"The work itself is not just technique, but it also reflects 2000 years of Chinese art."

[ image: Commemorating the millions of red guards]
Commemorating the millions of red guards
The panels combine the traditional with the revolutionary.

One panel depicts women transporting arms and supplies across mountains during the Korean war.

Another picture celebrates a massive civil engineering project and another panel commemorates the millions of Red Guards with their little red books of Mao's thoughts who were sent to the countryside in the late 60s and early 70s.

Most of the lacquerware was made during the violent turmoil of the cultural revolution, a traumatic event in recent Chinese history.

The Red Guards, urged on by Mao, set back the country's development by decades.

[ image: Mao's wife commissioned artwork before her death]
Mao's wife commissioned artwork before her death
Culture itself fell under the sway of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, who was herself purged and put on trial after Mao's death.

She commissioned a set of 15 panels called The Red Lantern, which tells the story of a heroic railway engineer and his daughter.

After the cultural revolution the panels were put away in the state lacquer factory where they rapidly decayed but now have been restored.

Restoring the past

There is no doubt that these works are spectacular but they belong to a period in China's recent history that the country would rather forget, and their emphasis on the heroic achievements of the revolution nowadays looks unfashionable.

The Chinese ambassador of London, Ma Zhen Gang, came to open the exhibition. He said China has now come to terms with the excesses of the revolution,

[ image:  Ma Zhen Gang :
Ma Zhen Gang :"Chinese people will have a new knowledge and conception of the revolution."
"I think people will have a good understanding of the cultural revolution.

"It happened under those historical conditions and now the Chinese people and government have a new knowledge and conception of the revolution and we have said that this sort of things will never happen again in China."

But some things are still taboo, one panel on show portrays the opening of a new bridge.

It was made for Mao's defence minister, Lin Biao but before it was delivered he died in an air crash - fleeing after mounting an unsuccessful coup.

In the picture he is positioned next to Mao but his face has been scratched out and the craftsman who restored the panels refused to put him back.

New China, Ancient Art: Lacquer from Ziangzou can be seen at the Winter Fine Art and Antiques Fair at the National Hall, Olympia, west London until 22 November.

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