China's struggling painters create a Greenwich Village


April 01, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Yan Zhenxue says he once was nothing more than "a money-making machine." But now he has found a special place to paint, to dream and to search for himself among like-minded souls.

Until a few years ago, Mr. Yan was a hard-driving manager of an advertising company in the coastal province of Zhejiang.

"I spent all my time arranging things, giving people presents, taking them to lunch," the 49-year-old artist recalls. "My ego was destroyed. I had to come here to find myself. Here I exist. In other places, I do not exist."

Here is Fuyuanmen, "Edge of Fortune Gate," a small village on Beijing's northwest outskirts.

On the surface, Fuyuanmen is a typical north China settlement: a maze of narrow dirt lanes leading to hundreds of simple brick houses, each with its own walled-off courtyard. But since the late 1980s, the village has become a mecca for aspiring artists from all over China.

About 50 of them now rent spare houses from the villagers, whose remarkable tolerance is bought with exorbitant rental rates.

The artists first were drawn to the village perhaps because it is fortuitously situated on the western boundary of Yuanmingyuan, now a large, pleasant park but for centuries an imperial summer garden.

The park's palaces -- many were European designs provided to dTC Qing Dynasty emperors by Jesuit missionaries -- were destroyed by English and French troops in 1860. The sad ruins, overgrown gardens and relative peace have long drawn Beijing art students.

Whatever their original motivation for settling here, Fuyuanmen's artists have created something that has taken on a life of its own.

The village is often likened to a Chinese version of Barbizon, the 19th-century center for aspiring French painters, or even to a small-scale Greenwich Village, the U.S. haunt for the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s.

The loosely communal, hand-to-mouth scene here would be instantly recognizable to struggling artists around the world:

Quarters sparsely furnished with low stools, plywood tables and mattresses on the floor. Bare concrete walls adorned with works progress. Late-night parties to rock 'n' roll tapes played on boom boxes. Denim jackets, black jeans, baggy wool sweaters, high-top sneakers and shoulder-length hair.

Some of the artists here produce large, abstract, hard-to-discern works. Some consider themselves "pop" artists, somewhat in the manner of Andy Warhol. A few have sold their art overseas, but most still find little acceptance in China's very conservative society.

"In China, art is still supposed to serve society," says Lu Hao, a 24-year-old painter whose father, a Communist Party member, wishes he would lead a more normal life. "The government wants us to paint things like plum blossoms and peony flowers, but all these things have been painted beautifully for a long period of time.

"We want to create something new. We want to go back and take things from the past and make them better."

His friend and fellow artist Wang Qiang essentially tried that elsewhere and found it didn't work.

Mr. Wang, 30, had a cushy post at a large steel company in Beijing. He was given housing, food and time to paint. But he rendered the steel workers as he saw them -- slumping, burdened, dour -- rather than as larger-than-life socialist masters. The steel company wasn't pleased. Nor was he.

"I don't want to have a job, get married, have a kid, live life happily ever after," Mr. Wang says. "None of that is advantageous to my art. In order for art to be done well, life must be lived well."

For Westerners, Fuyuanmen wouldn't appear to offer such a good life. The artists' houses are barely heated. Their toilets are communal pits. The police regularly stop by to check on them.

But when they are sick, they take care of each other. They feed each other. There are long afternoon gab sessions about art and life over endless cups of tea and cigarettes.

"We are not really free of the rest of China here, only relatively free," Mr. Yan says. "The government can still interfere with us any time that it wants.

"But here for now we are free to paint."

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