Between 1850 and the present day, China's historic civilization has undergone a series of shocks and transformations that may be unprecedented in her history. This exhibition explores the ways its artists defined modernity and their own tradition against the complex background of China's recent history. This history included, in the nineteenth century, domestic rebellions, foreign invasions, and the establishment of treaty ports, and in the twentieth century, overthrow of the imperial system, urban industrialization, conquest by Japan, civil war, the Communist revolution, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and finally China's recent opening in commerce and culture to the international community.
A key issue for modern Chinese art is the degree to which Chinese artists have chosen to adopt Western conventions and the degree to which they have rejected them. Equally legitimate positions have been taken by artists whose work actively opposes the legacy of the past and by those who pursue innovations based upon their understanding of the Chinese tradition. The process of modernizing China's society during the past 150 years has created an art world in which ink painting (guohua) and oil painting are equally important component parts of the evolving mainstream of Chinese art. Modern Chinese art, in all its manifestations, may be seen as a conceptual and stylistic continuum of individual works that share web-like relationships to the culture of China's past and to those of a global present.
The exhibition is organized around four of the most compelling of the multiple realities that Chinese artists have constructed for themselves over the past century and a half. Moving roughly chronologically, the exhibition begins on the first floor with Innovations in Chinese Painting, 1850-1950. The second floor opens with radical experiments in Western media in The Modernist Generations, 1920-1950; moves next to the development of socialist realism in Art for New China, 1950-1980; and concludes with Transformations of Tradition, 1980-the Present, an examination of current trends.