Dean, School of Arts, Renmin University, Beijing
Professor Xu Weixin is a member of the Oil Painting Committee of the China Artists’ Association and is Director of the China Oil Painting Society.
Xu Weixin’s art in recent years has been committed to social and historical issues. His series Chinese Historical Figures 1966 – 1976 consists of over 100 oil paintings memorialising the famous and the ordinary, the brave and the unfortunate, the victims and the perpetrators from the ten years of chaos. The series was featured in Beijing’s Today Art Museum in 2007, and had a great impact amongst Chinese artists and ideologists.
‘During the Cultural Revolution, as ordinary people, were we not part of the cruelty or accomplices to it? Shouldn’t we resolve to repent and examine our actions and our motivations?’ (Xu, 2009)
In recent iterations of Chinese Historical Figures 1966–1976, close relatives of deceased subjects have hand-written the life stories onto the canvas. This intervention clearly signals a break from the narrative that maintains that the Cultural Revolution was an exceptional time. The present and the past are linked by real people and continuing memories.
In encountering Xu’s project one wonders whether he is in opposition to Richter’s determination that the portrait should not claim the sitter – and if so, as I suspect is the case – his portraits are more concerned to present a collective memory whilst also insisting on individual components – victim and perpetrator, and both.
‘A portrait must not express anything of the sitter’s ‘soul’, essence or character.
Nor must a painter ‘see’ a sitter in any specific, personal way;
because a portrait can never come closer to the sitter
than when it is a very good likeness.
For this reason, among others, it is far better to paint a portrait from a photograph,
because no one can ever paint a specific person
—only a painting that has nothing whatever in common with the sitter.
In a portrait painted by me, the likeness to the model is apparent,
unintentional and also entirely useless.’
Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting (MIT Press, 1995)