xi's moments
Home | People

Telling China's history through political art

By MAY ZHOU and ZHANG YUAN in Salt Lake City | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-10-05 02:23

American filmmaker Dodge Billingsley, an avid collector of China's Social Realism Art, talks about his collection in his office in Salt Lake City, Utah. May Zhou/China Daily

Dodge Billingsley of Utah retraces China's revolutionary days through Social Realism Art

A large portrait of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De is on prominent display in Dodge Billingsley's office in Salt Lake City, Utah. The 25 pieces of Chinese art displayed in his residence are testimony to his strong interest in China's Social Realism Art.

As an award-winning independent filmmaker, Billingsley, who had lived in New York for more than a decade before moving to Utah, was hired by The Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University to make a documentary film about Helen Foster Snow's life in 1999.

He traveled to China, and visited Yan'an, Xi'an, Shanghai and elsewhere to make the documentary, which took two years.

"It introduced me to China, and I found it interesting," Billingsley said.

He has always had a strong interest in Social Realism Art. "I was collecting those (artworks) in different parts of the former Soviet Union for about 10 years prior to my going to China. I was looking into that when I was in China."

While filming Snow's life story in Yan'an, he met artist Song Ruxin, who was selling woodblock prints and taking care of Mao Zedong's cave residence, preserved as a museum at that time. "I asked him if he had anything from the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). He said most were gone, but he had some pieces in his house."

Billingsley visited Song's residence one day after filming. It turned out that Song belongs to a group called Yan'an Cave Artists. Billingsley not only acquired a few interesting pieces from Song but also learned about Jin Zhilin through Song.

Jin is famous for his revolutionary paintings and considered one of the first-generation oil artists of the new China. Jin's work Nan Ni Wan was auctioned for about $2 million (13.44 million RMB) in May this year.

"I have been collecting former Soviet Union pieces; I know these are really good pieces. The art [pieces] are beautiful, but I also wanted to learn the stories behind it. I went to Beijing to visit Jin," Billingsley said.

Billingsley learned that woodblock printing was a form of a popular and important revolutionary art in Yan'an when Mao was there in 1940s. Gu Yuan and Yan Han from the Lu Xun Academy of Arts and Literature set up the tradition at that time.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Jin was sent to Yan'an to create art for the benefit of people after going through May 7 Cadre School. There were about 15 to 20 artists in that group. Jin carried the Yan'an revolutionary art tradition from the 1940s, and taught the group oil painting and other mediums.

"They lived in caves. They learned paper cut from old ladies in the villages. They learned different art techniques in the region," said Billingsley.

He went back to China numerous times to find the artworks and collect them. Fortunately, Jin kept a catalogue of works done during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) in Yan'an. Based on that catalogue, Billingsley was able to track down five artists and bought more than 140 pieces from them. Recently, he tracked down another artist and plans to make a visit next year.

Billingsley also was fascinated by the stories behind the Yan'an Cave Artists. He spent days in Jin's studio, where he interviewed him and filmed 10 days of video. Later, he produced the documentary film Masses to Masses: An Artist in Mao's China to tell Jin's story.

"It's political art. It's very strong in China. Art was seen as a mechanism to instruct. Jin Zilin really believed it. He created art to put a message to the masses. That's what Mao talked about, art and literature in 1942 in Yan'an, and that's the basis for China's revolutionary art," Billingsley said.

His collection had been exhibited at six different museums in Oregon, Arizona, Utah and Idaho and was well-received.

Now Billingsley is interested in collecting another category of Yan'an revolutionary art – woodblock prints given to American pilots by Mao during World War II.

At that time, some American pilots escaped to Yan'an after being shot down by the Japanese Army. They were protected by Mao's army until the US could send a plane from India over the Himalayas to pick them up.

Art led to history discovery. "I didn't really know anything about the history between China and the United States back then, that they worked together. Both communists and nationalists worked with the US to throw Japanese out," he said.

When the American pilots were leaving, Mao would present them with a set of 10 woodblock prints from famous revolutionary artists such as Yan Han and Gu Yuan.

"Those Americans brought them home. A lot of them kept it as a memento because they were shot down, crossed the country, went to Yan'an, stayed there for a while, and were given this gift by Mao," Billingsley said.

He estimated that there might be 100 or so sets out there. As the pilots began to pass away in old age, the art began to appear at auctions, because their children had no emotional ties to it. So far, eight sets have surfaced, and Billingsley has personally seen three sets.

One set was given by the children of George Hanlon, a former lieutenant colonel in the US Army Air Corps, to Fudan University Library in April 2018. Fudan produced a documentary of the story, and Billingsley helped to shoot the Utah scenes. He was also invited to attend the unveiling of the art at the Fudan Library special collections.

"It's rare. A recent set was sold for $157,000. I would like to have a few pieces," he said hopefully.

Global Edition
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349