by Shelley Drake Hawks. University of Washington Press, November 2017. 304 p. ill. ISBN 9780295741956 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed November 2018
Ding Cong, Feng Zikai, Li Keran, Li Kuchan, Huang Yongyu, Pan Tianshou, and Shi Lu are now revered artists in the modern Chinese cannon, but they were ferociously persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under the leadership of Mao Zedong. In The Art of Resistance: Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China, Shelley Drake Hawks (adjunct faculty member, Middlesex Community College, Massachusetts) sensitively surveys these seven artists’ personal, political, and artistic lives through her own myriad interviews with the artists and their family or friends, extensive academic research, and materials collected on trips to China.
The Art of Resistance has three main sections preceded by a chronology of significant events and an introduction contextualizing the book’s discussion for those unfamiliar with the Cultural Revolution and art historical analysis. Part I is devoted to the cartoonists Ding Cong and Feng Zikai. Part II examines the lives of Li Keran, Li Kuchan, Huang Yongyu, and Pan Tianshou, all academicians. Part III is entirely devoted to the tumultuous life and art of Shi Lu, intimately following the convergence of persecution, artistic evolution, mental illness, and asserting the individual self. The concluding chapter intertwines the stories of these seven artists dealt with individually in the preceding sections. An appendix of Shi Lu’s poetry is a beautiful and emotional addition to the researched prose. Further humanizing are photographs of the author with the artists or their families alongside artwork reproductions. Extensive notes, bibliographic citations, and the index offer further avenues for exploration. There is also a glossary of keywords in Pinyin, simplified Chinese characters, and English.
Hawks’ audience seems to exist in a middle ground between curious layperson and scholar. The Art of Resistance is an accessible read that is not heavily theoretical or pretentious in tone. Six of nine chapters stand alone as digestible vignettes contributing to an overarching theme. Sections of visual analysis may be difficult for some readers, especially when the work in question is not reproduced. More reproductions would be appreciated, though there are citations for those not present. Hawks’ expansive notes, unobtrusive at the end of the volume, make this title both an excellent catalyst for further study and an engaging one-off read.
The Art of Resistance, with its accessible language and extensive research, recommends itself for libraries in universities teaching art and history at the undergraduate level. Museums with related collections would benefit from offering this book to patrons with varying levels of expertise.