Chinese Peasant Paintings: Huxian & Jinshan Folk Art and Why I Like It
How I Discovered Chinese Folk Art
A few years ago, my mother and I bought a number of Chinese peasant paintings, an array of colorful watercolor wall art from folk artists in Jinshan and Huxian. We bought them unframed on the Internet at a ridiculously cheap price. This is by way of a confession, as I very much fear that, despite assurances I read that these were not the fruits of horribly exploited folk artists in China, I can't imagine how these artists from the Jinshan Academy of Peasant Paintings and the Huxian region, which is near the site of the famous giant terra cotta warriors, could produce such volume, yet avoid being underpaid.
Nevertheless, being poor, but lovers of things beautiful, we bought them. And delighted in them. The paintings' wildly colorful images of folks scenes, depicting anything from capsicum harvest to chickens to women holding parasols, were unbelievably cheerful and happy, something all too rare in an art world that seems more interested in tearing modern society to shreds than in creating beauty.
Finding "happy" art was more important to me than I knew, as my mother was, unbeknownst to us then, very sick with cancer and struggling to distract herself by placing beauty inside her apartment. Her apartment was crowded with these paintings, which she had framed very cheaply, and she enjoyed rearranging them often. Although not artistic herself, she was always excellent at display, and the paintings came alive even in their overcrowded surroundings.
About Jinshan and Huxian Chinese Peasant Paintings
Huxian paintings originate from Huxian in the Shaanxi Province in China. In the early 1950s, peasants began using natural "paints" such as red clay as well as soot and lime to paint scenes of typical life chores and activities. The subject matter broadened and the paintings became more colorful with the use of watercolors through and past China's Cultural Revolution.
The paintings are deemed to be the type of folk art known as "primitive" or "naïve." Most that are sold overseas are originals, sort of - in other words, they're a mix of originals and copies. Each painting is designed by a known folk artist, who signs the work after a team of folk artists paint them. I personally think of my paintings as a kind of limited edition hand-painted print. Many are sold without frame, as watercolors on paper, and shipped in a roll overseas.
The seemingly simple shapes and bright colors on the paintings might suggest rudimentary drawing and coloring skills to the uninitiated. I can assure you it is not so. The illustration is basic and raw but composed brilliantly, in both the intellectual and visual sense.
How do the Huxian and Jinshan artworks differ? Quite distinctly. The Jinshan folk paintings feature more muted colors - not boring pastels, by any means, but subtle tints and shades. They tend to have more crispness and symmetry and a feeling of quiet akin to the mild stillness of a gently rippling lake. Their mood tends toward depictions of elegant natural and manmade beauty and serenity.
The Huxian peasant paintings are rougher, more energetic, more asymmetrical, and more brightly colored than the harder-to-find Jinshan folk art. They have vigorous black outlines and tend to depict cheer, industry, congregation, and work.
Rural people - fishermen, farmers, and the community - feature prominently in the paintings from both regions; these are not simple nature scenes, but wedding parties, women carrying baskets, men fishing, festival goers. Faces are depicted with primitive dots, shapes and slashes; emphasis is on the clothing, the surroundings, the movement of characters in concert with each other.
Animals, too, are present in many of the paintings - birds and farm animals that become subjects in themselves.
"Primitive," "Naïve" Art With Extraordinary Color
But it's the color that I find so remarkable about these Chinese peasant paintings. The folk artists from the Huxian and Jinshan regions have an extraordinary color sense I've learned not to take for granted. The rich, vibrant, beautifully contrasted colors carry off a wild harmony and somehow avoid being loud. The colors rarely clash or battle each other for attention. Such a thing seems easy, but the ability to carry it off is very much not universal among artists.
In other words - I love them. They make me happy.
I have a couple of the Jinshan paintings - my favorites - and several more Huxian paintings. A few I inherited from my mother, who passed away several years ago. They will always bring back memories of our giddy delight when we opened the packages and the pleasure in her face as she showed me her walls...not to mention the way we ruthlessly effected art trades with each other ("I'll trade you your chickens for my umbrella!"), each of us assuming we came out the winner.
I hope to pass these on to my son and that they will both carry memories for him and tempt him to explore international art and different ways of seeing the world and its beauty.
Further Reading on Chinese Peasant Folk Art Paintings
© 2010 Chris Telden