Poster for the Caocao Society exhibition, 1980. Courtesy of the artist.


Conversation with Qiu Deshu

September 16, 2011 – September 17, 2011
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

China Institute

100 Washington St
New York, NY

A dialogue between artist Qiu Deshu and AAA Chair Jane DeBevoise, on the occasion of the exhibition, ‘Blooming in the Shadows: Unofficial Chinese Art, 1974-1985′, curated by Kuiyi Shen and Julia F Andrews, and presented at the China Institute, New York from September 15 to December 11, 2011.

Cover of the exhibition catalogue

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you very much, Qiu Deshu, for coming all this way from Shanghai, to participate in the opening of ‘Blooming in the Shadows’ at the China Institute. I am delighted to have an opportunity to talk to you about your experience in the early experimental art scene in China. The Caocao (Grass Grass) exhibition that you organized in 1980 was a milestone. Although less well known than the 1979 and 1980 ‘Xingxing’ (Star Star) exhibitions in Beijing, I feel that an investigation of this exhibition’s origins and fate will provide a richer, more nuanced understanding of the development of contemporary art at this critical juncture in China’s recent history. My first question is: how did you become interested in art?

Qiu Deshu (QDS): Since I was young I showed a strong interest in handwork such as playing with blocks or clay. I hated to follow the instruction mechanically and preferred to figure things out by myself. I was quite a naughty child, but as long as my parent gave me brush, or pen and paper, I would sit there quietly for a long time and draw. Neither of my parents were artists; they had a business that made hats – my mother would design decorative elements for them. But they had an appreciation for art. Since kindergarten, I was always praised and encouraged by my teachers. When I was in my 3rd grade in elementary school, I was recommended to go to a special training class in the Youth Palace a year in advance, which laid the foundation for my painting techniques. When I went to middle school, my parents hired an old traditional Chinese painter (Mr Zhang Wenchen) as my private tutor. Every week I went to his home to have lessons. With the encouragement of my teacher, in 1963 I created a painting after Shitao (the early Qing painter who lived from 1642 – 1707). My teacher was so delighted by this painting that he wrote an inscription on it, ‘Although Qiu Deshu has been learning painting from me for less than one year, from this work I can see this child is very talented and works very hard. So I am writing this inscription as encouragement.’

Painting by Qiu Deshu after Shitao, ink on paper, 1963. Courtesy of the artist.

JD: Where did you see the original Shitao painting?

QDS: My teacher showed me an image of the original painting. It was in a book published a long time ago, before Liberation in 1949. Here is some more work that I created when I was in middle school, before the Cultural Revolution. They include a sketch, a watercolor, and a woodblock. At that time I was learning a lot of things — oil painting, ink painting and so on. In brief, I have studied watercolor, ink painting and oil painting since I was very young.

Early works by Qiu Deshu. Left: watercolor on paper, 1966. Middle: pencil on paper, c. 1966. Right: woodblock print, 1968. Courtesy of the artist.

JD: How did the Cultural Revolution impact your developing art practice?

QDS: The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 in China. At the time I was a high school student, and an enthusiastic Red Guard, devoting all my energy to painting portraits of Chairman Mao, propaganda cartoons and woodblock prints of revolutionary themes. I was so heartily involved in the revolution that I painted whatever the revolution wanted me to paint. In this work, you see peasants, workers and soldiers clutching [the] book by Chairman Mao. Once I even painted [for] three days and three nights without sleeping. I broke down the walls of two classrooms and merged them into one in order to exhibit my own works. That could count as my first solo exhibition.

Qiu Deshu with his painting, c.1966-67. Courtesy of the artist.

JD: What happened after high school?

QDS: In 1968 I was assigned to a leather factory, which later became a plastics factory, where I worked initially shoveling coal into a furnace. This woodblock print is of myself, as a coal stoker.

Woodblock print. Courtesy of the artist.

But of course my ambition wasn’t to be a worker, but rather a painter, so at work I kept a sketchbook in my pocket and drew portraits of my colleagues during breaks at the factory. I learned anatomy by drawing in the public bathhouse, because that was the only way to learn what the human figure looked like. I often went to the zoo by bicycle to make sketches there. Gradually I became acquainted with some older artists, and asked them to be my teachers and to advise me on my work every now and then. For me the society was one big classroom in which I could study. In 1970 and 1973, I was recommended twice by the Bureau of Light Industry to further my art education by studying at the Shanghai Art School (上海美术专科学校). During this time, I created political cartoons with my classmates and teachers and traveled to Hainan Island to tiyan shenghuo(体验生活) [which literally means ‘experience life’ but is probably better translated as ‘paint from life’, rather than in the studio or from books]. All these experiences were very helpful to me. In 1978, I went to Zhejiang Academy of Art and showed my drawings and sketches to a famous professor there, hoping to apply for the graduate school. The professor praised me for the vividness and sensitivity of my work, but advised to me stop thinking about graduate school because the admission of new candidates had been decided already by the school officials.

JD: These sketches are not only interesting as examples of your early artwork, but they also provide interesting documents of factory life during the Cultural Revolution. Can you explain a little about what is going on here?

Sketches made in the factory. Courtesy of the artist.

QDS: A lot of my paintings were about people at work. There were people sewing shoes in a plastic factory, and machines that punched holes. On the left is a meeting at the cafeteria. At the time we participated in a lot of meetings and criticism sessions. On the right is somebody teaching us about the current situation of the country.

JD: During this period what kinds of books did you read?

QDS: From 1966 to 1976, I read a lot at home, for example Buddhist sutras, such as the Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra, and a novel called Spartacus that I borrowed from a friend. What impressed me most was the heroic spirit of the gladiator in Spartacus who faced reality directly and bravely. The two major spiritual supports in my life are the Buddhist concept of the void and impermanence as well as the iconic idea of the slave Spartacus. At the time I began to feel that there should be ideals and freedom in life and art, that there was something wrong with the art practice during Cultural Revolution.

Qiu Deshu at Shanghai Art School in 1970 and 1973. Courtesy of the artist.

JD: Could you talk a little more about your experience at the Shanghai Art School?

QDS: During the Cultural Revolution there was a saying that workers were able to become anything they wanted to. If they wanted to be artists, they could become artists. At the same time, it was ‘believed’ that people who were previously artists probably had some sort of mental problem. But actually, the officialdom knew that workers could never paint as well as those who had previous artistic training. So once in a while when I was still working in the factory, I was sent to so-called ‘worker training’ at the Shanghai Art School. In fact, there were quite a number of artists like me who went to ‘worker-training.’ At the time I created lot of political cartoons.

Qiu Deshu in Shanghai No.18 Plastic Factory. Courtesy of the artist.

JD: One of these projects that you were called in to do was related to Nixon’s first trip to China in 1972. Can you talk a little bit about this project?

QDS: In 1972, right before Nixon’s visit to China, when I was still working in the factory, I had already gained a reputation as an important ‘worker-painter.’ So I was chosen to paint for Nixon’s visit.

Woodblock print made during Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Courtesy of the artist.

JD: At the time talented artists were enlisted to create decorative paintings for public spaces, including meeting halls and restaurants, for the increasing visits of foreign delegations and tourists. As one of these artists, can you explain what the situation was like, how the subject of these paintings was chosen, and how you obtained materials for these works?

QDS: The Chinese Artists Association was abolished during the Cultural Revolution. So the organizing entity for this activity was the Shanghai Art Museum. The artists were assembled there to have meetings to discuss the subject matter. Once we agreed on the subject matter, the organizer distributed the materials to us. Then I started to make sketches. Once the sketches were approved, we were able to produce the final painting.

JD: At that time did you sign your name?

QDS: Sometimes I did, but most of the time I didn’t. That was the custom at the time, something I continued until the Caocao Society. At the time signing or not seemed not to be important at all, although it is indeed very important.

JD: The next major commission was this work which was exhibited in 1975 at the National Gallery in Beijing. Can you talk a little bit about this work?

Rushing to the Front Line, exhibited at National Gallery in Beijing, ink and color on paper, 1975. Courtesy of the artist.

QDS: The work was selected for the 1975 National Exhibition and is called Rushing to the Front Line. The production process was similar to the earlier work. First we discussed the subject matter, then sketches got approved, then materials were distributed to us to do the final work. Within the limited subjects that were acceptable by the authorities, I thought the training of citizen-soldiers was more flexible and relaxed. To my surprise, the painting was very well received. I was selected as to represent Shanghai in the exhibition in Beijing. It was a great honor to me.  However, when I arrived in Beijing, I saw other works in the National Exhibition and felt quite disappointed, because technically speaking, even though I was an amateur painter, I could probably paint a lot better than many artists in the show, if only I had the resources and opportunity. So starting with the Beijing exhibition, I began to think that I needed to find another road for my work. My motto at the time was ‘idealized free expression.’

JD: In 1978 there was a major shift in China, particularly in terms of arts and culture. Suddenly, translations of foreign books became available and exhibitions of foreign art appeared in major museums. What was your experience at this time?

QDS: There was something called Reading Fever that swept the country from the late 70s to the early 80s. During that period, however, I was busy with my job at the Cultural Palace and painting my own work, so I didn’t read much actually. But I do remember reading Meishu Yicong (美术译丛) or the Art Translation Series, and Xinshi (信使), and also some catalogues of Russian artists like Repin. In 1979, in Shanghai I saw the exhibition from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. What impressed me most was a work by Jackson Pollack, his unique and free style.

Qiu Deshu at Luwan Cultural Palace. Courtesy of the artist.

JD: In 1977 you were moved from the factory to the Luwan District Cultural Palace. What did you do there?

QDS: At first the transfer was temporary, because the Luwan Cultural Palace had just been established and needed people from all fields. After a while I became a full-time staff member there. Transformed from a church, the Cultural Palace was a people’s art center under the leadership of the Propaganda Department of the District Bureau of Culture. Our facilities included a theatre for film and performance, and an exhibition space. My job was to paint posters and advertisements for movies and plays, and organize public exhibitions and art classes. I was mostly in charge of organizing and installing the exhibition space. I really enjoyed this position because I could create my own work alongside my job. I was usually the last one to leave the office at night so that I could work on my own art, after everyone left.

JD: Can you talk a little about your exhibition experience at the Luwan Cultural Palace?

QDS: Before I organized the Caocao Society, I curated a series of exhibitions at the Luwan Cultural Palace…about four or five. Almost all the older well-known artists in Shanghai at the time would have been invited to my exhibitions, and the audience reception was quite good. However, some of my artist friends and I felt that the shows were not that creative because most of the paintings shown were either very traditional, or imitating Western styles.

JD: Here are posters for two exhibitions that you organized at the Luwan Cultural Palace. The poster on the left was for an exhibition in 1978, which included some older painters as you described. The poster on the right was for the Caocao Group. Would you please talk about why you organized the Caocao exhibition? How was it different from other shows? What was the idea and how did you come up with the name?

Left: poster for an exhibition in 1978. Right: poster for the Caocao Society exhibition, 1980. Courtesy of the artist.
Forward to the Caocao Society exhibition, 1980.Courtesy of the artist.

QDS: At the time, we started to wonder whether we could do something different. I had experience organizing exhibitions, so I reported my idea for an exhibition of work by a new kind of art group to the leaders of the Cultural Palace. They were quite supportive. I originally wanted to call it the Independent Painters’ Group, because I thought after ten years of Cultural Revolution, independent spirit and independent thought were the most important thing. However the leaders misunderstood and expressed concern that this name might have something to do with the Declaration of Independence in America, So I changed the name to the Caocao Group, because the vitality of grass is so strong, it can survive all sorts of disaster, even fire, and grow again in the spring.

JD: This image shows part of the brochure that the Caocao Group prepared for the exhibition. On the right side of the image is the manifesto describing the goals of the group. On the other side of the image is a series of biographies of the participating artists. This series of biographies is interrupted, where there is a blank space. Could you talk a little about this blank space and how it happened?

QDS: The three main goals of Caocao Group were independent spirit, independent technique, and independent style. However everyone knew that these ideas of independence were dangerous and could be easily construed as political demands. Although initially supportive, some of the people in the group became nervous. One of the artists started to vacillate, unsure of whether or not he wanted to participate. On the night before the exhibition he called to tell me he no longer wanted to participate in the show. The brochures were already in the factory, but he insisted on having his name removed. So I went to the printing factory and begged the printer to take out this person’s information. That’s why you see the white space here.

Qiu Deshu at CaoCao Society exhibition, 1980. Courtesy of the artist.

The public reaction to the exhibition was very good, especially among young people. People who went to the show included art enthusiasts, students from the art classes at the Cultural Palace, and some painters. I also met Joan Cohen at the exhibition. The show was shut down pretty soon, mainly because the political winds had changed, and in Beijing there began a campaign, criticizing capitalist liberalization. This campaign arrived in Shanghai soon thereafter, so the leaders at Luwan Cultural Palace got scared and decided to close the exhibition early. The District Bureau of Culture viewed the Caocao Society as an example of capitalist liberalization, and the original name Independent Painters’ Group became the reason we were so charged. I was criticized repeatedly, for trying to be independent of the Party. My whole family would have been ruined if I had been found guilty.

In Troubled Times No.1, 1979, ink and color on paper, 136 X 263 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Rhythm of Stream, 1979, ink and color on paper, 68x 68.5cm. Courtesy of the artist.

I exhibited nine of my own paintings in this show, one of which was the biggest painting in the show. In this one you see eagles on the right and there is a tiger on the bottom left. I painted these carnivores to depict the evil forces in the world. The basic idea is that we should aspire to maintain a balanced and peaceful world.

Another work called Rhythm of the Streams represented my wish to have the same freedom in my own art as you see in this vibrant and harmonious landscape.

JD: These [above mentioned] works are included in the exhibition at the China Institute and reproduced in the catalogue. After the Caocao exhibition was closed, Qiu Deshu was severely criticized as well, which put him under a lot of emotional stress. After this very unpleasant experience, he produced a series of works, which are also included in the exhibition. Could you talk about how your work changed at this time?

3-5 Times Shouting, 1980, ink on paper, 129.6 X 269.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

QDS: I was very depressed in the early 1980s and under great pressure. My paintings reflect that. After the Caocao Society was banned, I felt deeply responsible for the incident. I felt scared, helpless, and repressed. I needed to find a way to release and reconcile my emotions through painting. I experimented a lot during this time – ink splashing and flowing, penetrating the paper, seals, etc. This was a form of self-salvation. In this series of paintings, darkness expressed my feelings of fear, helplessness, and strength.

Days and Nights, 1980, ink and color on paper, 77 X 132cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Seals, 1980, ink on paper, 26.8 X 14cm X 4. Courtesy of the artist.

JD: The next painting is also in this exhibition and indicates a new approach in your work, as you began to use seals. Can you talk about this new development?

QDS: To me, the seal represents the self in Chinese culture. I wanted to break that confinement. At first I thought I could release the energy, but in the end I found out that I was still like a little frog at the bottom of the well. So later on I began to actually rip the entire seal in an effort to liberate myself.

By ripping the seals I was also trying to question the tradition and convention, which expressed my courage to challenge the intransigent and conservative tradition.

JD: in the early 1980s you also began to develop your Fissuring series, which you continue to work on today.

Fissuring: Spiritual Self Portrait No.1, 1983, ink and color on paper and canvas, 136.5 X 68cm. Courtesy of the artist. Right: Fissuring: Spiritual Self Portrait No.3, 1983, ink and color on paper and canvas, 134.5 X 68cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Left: Fissuring: Spiritual Self Portrait No.1, 1984, acrylic and ink on paper and canvas, 143 X 142cm. Courtesy of the artist. Right: Fissuring: Spiritual Self Portrait No.3, 1984, acrylic and ink on paper and canvas, 142.5 X 142cm. Courtesy of the artist.

QDS: These paintings were done during my most difficult time, the time when I was subject to criticism session after criticism session. No one knew when it was going to end, and depending on the outcome, the authorities could have ruined my whole family. That’s how I felt. One day I was in the small garden at the back of the Cultural Palace, and saw these cracks on the ground, which looked like eyes staring into the sky directly and silently. I felt that my condition was mirrored in these cracks.

JD: looking at these images today, it is hard now to imagine why they were so controversial and why artists merited such severe criticism. But we must salute your courage and pioneering spirit. These works mark a major transition in the history of Chinese art, and in your own approach to painting, which you have continued to explore and develop until today. Here is a recent example of a large landscape painting.

Fissuring: Landscape, 2007-2010, acrylic on paper and canvas, 402 X 220cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Thank you very much for all your support in answering these questions and providing us with such a compelling description of your experience.

Qiu Deshu was born in 1948 in Shanghai, China. After graduating from high school, Qiu first worked at a factory, and then became an artist worker at Luwan District Cultural Palace. In the late 1970s he founded the Caocao Society, a group of twelve artists dedicated to the promotion of artistic originality. Since the early 1980s, he has been using ‘fissuring’ as the major theme in his work. He now lives and works in Shanghai, and has been widely exhibited. Notable exhibitions include ‘Fissuring’ at Harvard University (1985), Kwangju Biennale (1995), and ‘Ten Years after Grass Grass Group’ at Shanghai Duolun Contemporary Art Museum (2007), among others.

Transcribed and revised by Xiaofei Mo