The Man Behind China’s Most Iconic Work of Art
By: Crystal Zhao
If you travel to Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing, you’ll immediately encounter one of the most recognizable pieces of Chinese art in modern history: the massive 6 by 4.6 meter painting of Mao Zhedong that has hung over the north gate since the founding of the People’s Republic. With the exception of short yearly refurbishments, this painting looms over modern Beijing at all times, a specter of the past that watches over the ultramodern inhabitants of the ancient city. The likeness of the man many say is responsible for the current economic modernism and health of the country is very much a representation of the era he came out of and perhaps built. His cheeks are ruddy, his smile subtle, the sunset behind him promising a future of agrarian prosperity. Even more than forty years after his death, Mao continues to be a centerpiece in Chinese history and culture, and his portrait is the exact physical representation of that. Surprisingly, there isn’t a large team of state-employed artists monitoring its condition at all times. The responsibility of maintaining and upholding this iconic piece of art ultimately falls to one man – remarkable in his unremarkableness – Ge Xiaoguang.
Ge began his tenure as the keeper of this portrait in 1977, one year after the death of Mao. He had been the apprentice of the former portraitist for six years by then, and though he ascended to the position with the full support of his superior, he was understandably nervous. “You have to paint him with deep understanding of his spirit and his connection with the Chinese revolution. What I’m doing is not just art; it’s beyond art. The significance of this portrait carries the same weight as our national flag and emblem.” He had been tasked with painting not only a historical monolith, but a cultural icon. That year, at the age of 24, Ge’s first portrait of Mao went up in Tiananmen Square, and he has been painting the same man ever since. Each year, before the national holiday on October 1, Ge has to replace the old portrait with a new one according to the preferences of the government. Over the years, through periods of peace and turmoil, he has been asked to add a subtle quirk of the lips, a head tilt, and a more grandfatherly look to Mao. Whether citizens notice or not, the portrait has always reflected the times in some way or another.
As for the painter himself, Ge Xiaoguang has devoted his life to his job, and as a result, gained a reputation for being a recluse. He lives and works in a studio near the Imperial Palace, either painting the “Great Helmsman” for the coming year or symbolically painting over the old one in white. The monotony of this seems undeniable, but Ge finds satisfaction and meaning in his work. “Every year, I try to make the painting better. This journey has been and will always be my most important artistic creation.”