Wang Guodong, painter of Mao's grim stare in portraits, dies at 88

Paramilitary officers change guard in front of the picture of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on May 7, 2019. Artist Wang Guodong was chosen in 1964 to paint the 4.5m by 6m oil portrait which is replaced annually.
Paramilitary officers change guard in front of the picture of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on May 7, 2019. Artist Wang Guodong was chosen in 1964 to paint the 4.5m by 6m oil portrait which is replaced annually.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - His portraits were among the most recognisable in the world, rivalling the Mona Lisa.

But few have heard of Wang Guodong, the Chinese artist who for years was responsible for painting the enormous portrait of Mao Zedong that gazes down on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Mr Wang, who was 88 when he died last Friday (Aug 23) at a hospital in Beijing, was chosen in 1964, when he was in his early 30s, to be the official painter of the 4.5m by 6m oil portrait of Mao that hangs steps from the party’s central seat of power, at the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Portraits of Mao have been installed there since 1949, when the communists took power in China; they are frequently replaced because they are exposed to the elements. A portrait of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader who lost the civil war to Mao's communists, had hung there previously.

The job was one of the highest - and most intimidating - honours available to a painter in China. In a sign of Mr Wang's stature in Communist Party circles, a funeral was held for him on Sunday at Babaoshan, the cemetery in Beijing reserved for party elite, Beijing Youth Daily reported. Mr Mao Xinyu, Mao's grandson, was said to have sent a wreath.

Over the years, Mao's appearance evolved as portraits were swapped out. At one point, he was depicted wearing an octagonal cap and a coarse woollen jacket. But even after Mr Wang stepped down as official portrait maker in 1976, his successors continued to paint identical portraits based on his design, showing a rosy-cheeked, grim-looking Mao with his trademark chin mole.

Today, the portrait, which is replaced annually, is among the most recognisable paintings in the world. Few, however, have heard of the artist.

"Nobody is allowed to put their names on that painting," Mr Wang explained in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 2006. "It's that way before, and it's that way now."

Mr Wang appeared not to mind. For him, anonymity came with the job of creating what one prominent art historian called "the most important painting in China". But like many who lived through the turbulence of Mao's totalitarian rule, Mr Wang was not always in such good standing with the party.

During the Cultural Revolution, the decade-long period of political tumult that convulsed the country from 1966 to 1976, Mao's image was prominently displayed in millions of homes, schools, factories and government buildings across the country. As the leader's personality cult grew, Mr Wang found himself under attack by the student militants known as Red Guards, who persecuted anyone they considered ideologically impure or insufficiently devoted to Mao.

They called Mr Wang a capitalist because of his family background, and they criticised him for painting Mao from an angle that showed only one ear. This, they said, implied that Mao was listening to only a select few, not the masses.

"How many ears I painted was not up to me," Wang later explained. "It was decided by the central government." He said all of the artists who painted Mao did so based on a government-issued photo and were instructed not to deviate from it.

Nevertheless, Mr Wang was subjected to a so-called struggle session, in which he was brought onto a stage and publicly humiliated. Mosquitoes were swarming around him, but "I didn't even dare to swat them away", he recalled in a 2004 interview with a Chinese magazine.

As punishment, Mr Wang was sent by the authorities to work as a carpenter in a framing factory for two years. But he was allowed to keep his title, and he continued to paint the official portrait, this time with two ears.

In the 1970s, Mr Wang selected 10 Beijing art students as apprentices. They were screened first for their political reliability and second for their artistic ability. They were taught the basics of portrait painting and learned how to stay within the boundaries of political acceptability.

"Mao's face must be painted extra red to show his robust spirit," Liu Yang, one of the students, told The Los Angeles Times in 2006. "It can never be too yellow, which would seem sickly, like he hadn't eaten in days. You could be accused of being a counter-revolutionary."

Only once, after Mao's death in 1976, was a black-and-white portrait of the chairman hung on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Mr Wang retired that year.

Since then, in keeping with tradition, the portrait has been replaced with a new one every year, under cover of darkness, just before National Day celebrations on Oct 1.

Mr Wang was born June 25, 1931, in Beijing. Little could be determined about his youth or his family life. His death was reported by Chinese state media. His survivors include two sons.

The Mao portraits, still based on a version designed by Mr Wang, have varied little in recent decades. Each is seen by millions of tourists every year as they visit Tiananmen Square and the Palace Museum.

The portraits have been vandalised several times, including during the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when three young demonstrators pelted it with ink-filled eggs. Hours later, the defaced portrait was taken down and replaced with a spare. The protesters served lengthy prison sentences.

"It's a very complex image," Mr Wu Hung, an art historian at the University of Chicago, said of the painting in a 2006 New York Times article. "It has different meanings to different people. To the party, it symbolises the party and the nation's founding. But to a lot of people, it symbolises China, or it has very personal memories."

Since Mao's death and China's subsequent economic reforms, the demand for Mao paintings in China has waned. But over the years, artists have experimented with the once-sacred image.

In the late 1980s, in a subtle nod to the portrait's artificiality, Chinese artist Wang Guangyi depicted it overlaid with a grid structure, a technique that Mr Wang Guodong and his successors had used to copy the portrait to scale.

Mao's image was also, famously, an inspiration for Andy Warhol, whose silk-screened images turned the ruthless leader into something of an international pop icon. In 2017, a Warhol painting of Mao sold to an unidentified Asian buyer at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong for US$12.6 million (S$17.5 million).

In the Warhol painting, Mao is shown with one ear.