The Chinese painter Li Huasheng was born in 1944 in the village of Changliu in Sichuan province. The son of a boatman on the Yangzi River, Li began painting at the age of five or six; by his early teens he had already begun exhibiting his paintings in public parks. As the paintings in this lavishly illustrated, beautifully produced volume attest, Li has fulfilled the promise of his precocious youth. Forging an individual style rooted in traditional Chinese painting yet open to Western influences, Li has survived official censure and campaigns of vilification to achieve recognition and—for the time being, at least—protected status in the perilous world of contemporary Chinese art.
At one level, CONTRADICTIONS is a superb biography of an artist, following the vicissitudes of Li’s career from his youth to the present day. Drawing on extensive interviews with Li and others in his circle, Silbergeld, assisted by his graduate student Gong Jisui, delivers on his promise to convey “what it is really like to be a painter in the modern Chinese realm.” Cultural politics, patronage, Li’s relations with mentors and fellow painters—these themes and others are interwoven with analysis of Li’s evolving style (in turn related both to the historical tradition of Chinese painting and to the works of his contemporaries, reproduced along with Li’s own works).
While the focus is on the quirky particulars of Li’s life and the conflicts experienced by the “first generation of artists bred and trained according to Mao Zedong’s vision of politics and art,” CONTRADICTIONS also illumines, by implication, the seemingly much different position of the artist in the West. Indeed, it would be fascinating to read this book side-by-side with a comparable study of an American painter of Li’s generation.