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First Journey on the Golden Road (print) 54.2×49 cm 1962-1965 Li Huanmin

Shouwang (print) 148×95 cm 2014 Li Huanmin

Recently, the “Songs in the Snowy Land – Li Huanmin Art Exhibition” co-sponsored by the China Artists Association, the China National Academy of Painting, the Sichuan Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the Sichuan Artists Association, the Chengdu Painting Academy and the Beijing Painting Academy opened at the Art Museum of the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts. Through more than 70 prints, oil paintings, drawings, creative drafts, sketches and other works created by Li Huanmin, the exhibition systematically sorts out the creative context of his life and shows his artistic life in many aspects.

Li Huanmin, a member of a group of painters who went west in the 20th century, is a banner in the history of Chinese printmaking, and his art is inextricably linked to Tibetan themes. Li Huanmin’s choice of Tibet may seem accidental, but it has historical inevitability. In the early days of his entry into Tibet, his works focused on reproducing his concern for the survival of Tibetans; After the Cultural Revolution, his creations pursued form and weakened the theme; Since the 90s, he has been looking for the spiritual expression of Tibet, and the timelessness and monumental meaning of time and space are typical characteristics of this period. In decades of artistic pursuit, the artistic peaks he created set the standard for our present.

Li Huanmin, formerly known as He Guoru, was born in Peiping in 1930, and in 1946 participated in the “cram school” of the progressive organization of unity middle school students led by the underground party of the Communist Party of China opened by Beijing Normal University, and was admitted to the National Peiping Art College in 1947. A year later, he was wanted by the Kuomintang for his participation in the student movement. Under the arrangement of the Communist Party, He Guoru changed his name to Li Huanmin and went to the Liberated Areas. After the founding of New China, Li Huanmin entered the “Meigan Class” of the Central Academy of Fine Arts to study, and his propaganda poster “Whoever dares to invade us, we will call him to perish!” , has been published in Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, etc. In 1951, Li Huanmin was sent to work in the art group of Chongqing’s Xinhua Daily, which began his lifelong love affair with Tibet.

In 1953, the young Li Huanmin entered Tibet for the first time, and this trip also allowed him to see “the great vitality that erupted from the desperate situation of serfdom.” Since then, Shigatse, Gyantse, Yadong, Dangxiong, Tanggula Mountains and other places have left his footprints.

Political themes were an unavoidable responsibility for mid-20th-century artists, and Li Huanmin’s work during the New China period adopted a genuinely moving approach to express a continuing concern for ethnic minorities, in line with the spirit of the times. By 1976, Li Huanmin had created works such as “Weaving Flower Carpet”, “Yangqing Barley”, “Tibetan Girl”, “Studying”, “First Stepping on the Golden Road” and so on.

Among them, “Weaving Flower Carpet” attracted the attention of the printmaking community as soon as it came out in 1953. In the work, two young Tibetan girls are weaving a flower carpet, and the light and shadow effects of the oil painting are also presented in the picture, and the innovation of knife techniques makes the expression of the flower carpet rich. Expressing beauty is the original intention of this work, but its main subject is still an image of a Han girl with classical beauty wearing Tibetan clothes.

In 1957, Li Huanmin created Yangqing Barley, which was inspired by the sense of detail in sketches and quickly summarized the relationship between heaven, earth and man. The interspersed relationship in the picture has a clear internal logic, and the stable “mountain” glyph composition and unique looking up present a sense of sacredness. The painter sublimates the intention from the sketching feeling, and then integrates the artistic language to form the expression of the artistic conception of the picture.

When Li Huanmin created “Tibetan Girl”, he experienced the process of finding and portraying typical images. He discovered that Tibetan children have a “special” taste, and by observing a large number of Tibetan children’s images, he extracted the core of artistic expression – the expression of details such as eyes and lips, and a shy and curious contradictory body jumped out of the paper. And his “Study” is also a touching work, on the one hand, in its image portrayal, on the other hand, in its subject content. The image is delicate and the knife technique is exquisite, which makes the shaping of the object more accurate, presenting a realistic image and freehand picture effect.

The publication of “First Golden Road” in 1963 established Li Huanmin’s position in the history of Chinese art in the 20th century. With the theme of “smashing the iron chains of a thousand years, one step across a thousand years”, the work depicts Tibetan women leading yaks full of barley home. The work is full of irrepressible joy, allowing the viewer to see the scene of harvesting and transporting grain in the Tibetan ghetto area, and to see the leapfrog progress of the Tibetan people. The choice of Tibetan women as the image is the product of Li Huanmin’s artistic conception and its profound intentions. Subjectively processing the color tone of the picture, the golden wheat field and the red robe of the Tibetan girl form a color symphony. The composition reflects the painter’s emphasis on the sense of form of the work and the composition of the picture, and the work reveals musical expression, splendid, colorful, concise but full of content.

In this exhibition, “Medicine” and “New Tibetan Primary School” are copperplate prints, and their aesthetic interest is different from woodcuts in the Liberated Areas, whether it is composition, character shaping, or light and shadow processing, etc., the influence of European master Rembrandt can be seen. “Plateau Canyon”, on the other hand, jumps out of the description of specific things, broadens its thinking, and the way of thinking shown in its intention and composition has changed, and the European meaning is significantly reduced.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Huanmin was still “deeply cultivated” in the fertile soil of Tibet, and his artistic expression also clearly tended to the individual’s understanding of the existence of life and the natural environment, weakening the thematic meaning, and full of rational but romantic atmosphere from the subject matter to the composition. “In That Far Away Place” pinned on Li Huanmin’s imagination in his youth. In the 30s of the 20th century, Wang Luobin’s song “In That Far Away Place” made Qinghai-Tibet a “poetry and distant place” in the hearts of many young people. The young Li Huanmin was fascinated by it, and thus had a deep affection for distant Tibet. The picture of this work refers to the “good girl” yearning in the painter’s heart with a simple, delicate and beautiful character image. This romantic approach to creation was particularly prominent during this period.

It can be said that every transformation of Li Huanmin’s artistic process is accompanied by the changes of the times. In the ancient years, he still walked the fertile soil of Tibet, looking for the consensus of human nature. New visual elements prompted him to start thinking about the ultimate question of art. “Mother of the Plateau”, “Watch”, “Auspicious Ruyi”, “Open Plow”, etc. are representative works of this period, and the works present cross-time and space attributes, with monumental meaning, which is the materialization and sublimation of the painter’s historical accumulation.

Published in 2014, “Watch” is the last masterpiece of the elderly Li Huanmin’s artistic road, and the artist hopes to use it to express his expectations for the simple, thick and strong nature of the herdsmen, and also to show a better outlook for the future. The sculpturality of the picture shows the spiritual power of the characters, and its freehand also has a pastoral lyricism. It is not so much that Tibetan women watch the Jockey Club, but that Li Huanmin watches over the past and future of this spiritual home, and watches over his artistic beliefs.

Regarding the religious beliefs of the Tibetan people, Li Huanmin is both an enthusiastic integrator and a calm bystander. He never created works on religious subjects, and the rituals with religious connotations were seen by him as a background in Tibet and beyond their own meaning. Li Huanmin’s thematic performance tends to portray the spirituality of people, from individuals to ethnic groups, and then to the expression of the spiritual destiny of the entire human race.

Li Huanmin’s Tibetan friends gave him a Tibetan name: Gonggar Chucuo, which means “snowy mountains and seas.” As his name suggests, his art seeks change in depth, re-seeks in excavation, and each transformation is “touching high” and “digging deep”. He sang about the snowy plateau, recorded the vicissitudes and great changes in Tibet for more than half a century, and constantly searched for the immortal spiritual source of a nation.

(The author is the editor of the Theory Department of Beijing Painting Academy)