Artist captures Chairman Mao’s almost mythical charisma
By CHEN WEN
Known as a “Painter of Great Men,” Wei Chuyu, now a professor of fine arts at Renmin University of China, is recognized particularly for his vivid oil paintings of the first Chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Mao Zedong. One of his major works is called Searching the Truth, which depicts senior Chairman Mao reading among an enclave of books and magazines on a ragged, patched-up bed in his room at Zhongnanhai, the seat of China’s central leadership in Beijing. The work, done in oil on canvas, attempts to capture the leader’s daily life and study.
Wei has garnered a worldwide audience. In an exclusive interview with Beijing Review, the professor put down his brush and shares his story.
Back in 1992, 16 years after Mao’s death, Wei was invited to visit the chairman’s former bedroom, which had doubled as his study. Wei was asked to design a series of stamps to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mao, which was in 1993.
“When I was standing in front of Chairman Mao’s bed in the room, touching the desks he used to work on and seeing so many books on the shelves, desks and bed, I was really shocked,” said a very emotional Professor Wei. “I realized that I was close to a great soul; close to an unknown, but touching part of history.”
Wei said that although there have been some adverse remarks made about the man who led communist China to victory in their civil war in 1949, about which he was not willing to go into detail, he believes that Mao Zedong was a great man who worked for the Chinese people. “I did not experience that time myself. The things in Chairman Mao’s former bedroom—the shabby blanket and ashtray, the piles of books—they cannot speak, but they tell us how the chairman used to live and work. He worked hard but lived plain.”
Nobody required Wei to paint Mao, but he was compelled to. The artist expressed he was so moved by the chairman’s unadorned lifestyle and work ethic that he wanted to share it with others. “Ordinary people do not have the chance to visit Chairman Mao’s former bedroom,” he said, “I went there and saw what it was like. I strongly feel that I have a responsibility to tell others what I’ve seen.”
As an artist, Wei chooses paint rather than words to articulate himself. “An artist doesn’t speak. His paintings say everything,” Wei said.
With a deep feeling of respect and admiration, Professor Wei began to work on his painting of Chairman Mao. He collected bundles of source materials from Mao’s relatives and former assistants. Wei wanted to make sure that everything was as accurate as possible. It took him seven years to complete the work.
The painting won approval from Mao’s relatives and critical acclamation worldwide. “There are quite a number of foreigners who like the painting and some of them want to buy it,” said Wei, “but I promised not to sell it. I think it should be kept in China.”
Asked if he had any plans for art works on other Chinese leaders, Professor Wei smiled and said, “No.” He explained, “You know, my energy is limited. If I decide to paint for someone, I want to learn about the person comprehensively. I just don’t have much time and energy to do that.”
He did say he would however continue to produce artworks of Chairman Mao.