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Front Gate to the Gogong, Forbidden City, in Beijing.

Chameleon Mao, the Face of Tiananmen Square
(Source: New York Times (5/28/06)

FEW images created in the last century are as recognizable as the official
portrait of Mao that looms over Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

For decades, the 15-by-20-foot oil painting has served as a national icon.
This is the same image that, in the 1960's and 70's, was widely reproduced
and hung near the entrances to millions of homes, schools, factories and
government buildings. During the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was raised to
cult status, it seemed as if the entire nation had set about drawing a Mao
portrait, or at least honoring one. If Mao's Little Red Book was the
national bible, Mao's official portrait was the national stamp.

And while people in China seem to have lost some affection for Mao, and even
protested in 1989 by splattering his Tiananmen portrait with paint, his
image still represents something indelible and intangible, experts say.

"This is the most important painting in China," said Wu Hung, an art
historian at the University of Chicago. "This is not an artistic judgment.
But look at how many people have seen this image over the last century."

Mao's image may also be considered China's first and only global brand. Even
though China is a rising economic power, it still does not have a BMW or a
Coca-Cola to sell to the rest of the world.

But it does have Mao, a kind of George Washington, James Dean and Che
Guevara wrapped in one; a historic and pop figure who continues to be hip
and fashionable, even when Communism and the Communist Party are not.

And so it is no surprise that a firestorm erupted in China a little over a
week ago after a state-controlled Beijing auction house wheeled out an old
official portrait of Mao, owned by a Chinese-American, and said it would
sell the piece to the highest bidder on June 3.

The Huachen Auction Company said the small portrait, dating from the 1950's
or 60's, was painted by Zhang Zhenshi, one of Mao's first official portrait
makers and the artist credited with the model for the painting that hangs in
Tiananmen Square.

After critics on the Internet in China lashed out at the planned sale,
Huachen withdrew the item, saying the government had intervened and
"suggested" the work be placed in a national museum.

But the controversy raised some intriguing questions. Who actually painted
Mao's official portrait? And why is it still up in the square, when many
Chinese seem more eager to buy Gucci bags than Mao suits?

Some of the answers can be found in Professor Wu's book "Remaking Beijing,"
which says Mao's image, like the socialist state, was actually created by

Nor was it the first such portrait to hang in Beijing. A large one of Sun
Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, was raised in the square after
his death in 1925. And the image of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader,
was hung there in 1945.

Mao's portrait appeared in 1949, after the Communists assumed power. First,
a hastily sketched portrait was hung in February. Then, on Oct. 1, when Mao
declared the founding of the People's Republic of China from the rostrum at
Tiananmen Gate, an official portrait, based on a photograph, showed Mao
wearing an octagonal cap and coarse woolen jacket.

The cap-wearing Mao didn't last long. A year later, 30 artists were asked to
create a new image, and Mr. Zhang, a teacher at the Beijing Art Institute,
was named official portrait maker.

>From 1950 to about 1964, Mr. Zhang painted Mao's Tiananmen portrait, based
on official photographs, often with the help of artists who were supposed to
be anonymous.

The portrait evolved over time. Mao in an army cap gave way to Mao's
sideways glance, which was replaced by the now standard Mao frontal pose,
with his eyes peering directly at viewers. An early piece was criticized
because Mao appeared to be looking away from, possibly ignoring, the

Historians say that in the 1950's or 60's Mr. Zhang created the standard
image, based on a photograph of Mao in his trademark gray suit. And by 1967,
when the Cultural Revolution was under way, a final tweak had been added:
the painting showed both of Mao's ears, rather than just one, proof that he
was listening to all the people and not just a select few.

The artists, Mr. Wu said, were not supposed to be creative, but merely
render the image from carefully selected photographs. "If you emphasized the
artist, then it would be a work of art," Professor Wu said. "That was not
the intention."

Over the years, the painted Mao has aged, appeared grim, taken on a fatherly
look, and even shown a faint smile. At some point the shadow on his face was

Since 1949 there have only been four official portrait artists but many
unofficial contributors, like Wang Qizhi, now in his late 70's, who said in
an interview last week that he had worked for over 20 years on Mao's
portraits, leaving few records.

"The old canvas was reused by putting on white paint to cover the previous
painting," Mr. Wang said. "One piece of canvas was used five or six times.
When it became too thick to paint, people pulled off the canvas and put on a
new one."

Apparently, Mao's colorful oil portrait came down only once, briefly, after
his death in 1976, when it was replaced by a huge black and white
photograph, a sign of mourning. Why hasn't the image come down since? Some
believe that such a move would signal the demise of the party. Others say
the portrait is a cultural relic.

"It's a very complex image," said Professor Wu, who grew up near Beijing.
"It has different meanings to different people. To the party, it symbolizes
the party and the nation's founding. But to a lot of people it symbolizes
China, or it has very personal memories."

That is one reason Mao's official image has changed mostly in subtle ways.
Beyond Tiananmen Square, however, artists have experimented more freely, and
after Mao's death, some played with his once-sacred image. Wang Keping
attracted international attention in 1979 by carving a wooden image of a
Buddha-faced Mao called "Idol." In the 1980's, Wang Guangyi dissected Mao by
putting him behind bars, or a large grid. Li Shan put a flower and lipstick
on him; Gao Qiang made him look sickly, swimming in a blood-red Yangtze

But Mao's defenders are never far behind. Mr. Zhang's model Mao is no longer
up for auction, thanks to government intervention. And several weeks ago,
when Mr. Gao's sickly Mao was raised in an exhibition space in Beijing 's
trendy Dashanzi area, the police showed up. They had the image removed.
Officially, there's still only one Mao, and he's still the national icon.

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