Paris: Ma Desheng
By Beatrice Grenier
Full text also available in Chinese.
Musée National d’Art Moderne
In 2022, Franco-Chinese artist Ma Desheng was awarded the distinction of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an important French honor. Four decades of the artist’s oeuvre was on view on the permanent collections floor of Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou, offering a window into the larger story of the generation that came of age in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) in China.
After 1976, Ma’s generation, faced a reckoning with western postwar abstraction and strove to liberate themselves from Chinese socialist realism, all while questioning the possibility of finding modernity within Chinese tradition. Ma is an artist who ceaselessly addressed the questions central to contemporary art in 1980s and 1990s China. The exhibition surveyed many of the mediums the artist has worked with throughout his career: ink paintings on rice paper, woodblock prints, acrylic paintings, and sculpture. The careful selection, curated by Jérôme Neutres, framed Ma as a singular artist who has made important contributions to this historic generation.
Ma is perhaps lesser known than some of his contemporaries from the Stars group, an avant-garde artist collective founded in Beijing in 1979 by Ma and Huang Rui, comprising artists such as Wang Keping and Ai Weiwei, and best remembered for their radical advocacy for artistic freedom. Arriving in Paris in 1986, Ma’s career has mostly unfolded in France, where he has continued to practice ink painting, a medium he started to explore prior to his self-imposed exile from China. Ma demonstrates the versatility of his traditional brushwork techniques: at times, he attains abstraction through spontaneous invention of forms, and at others, he depicts the female nude, a theme found recurrently in his work, with minimal brushstrokes. Undeniably inspired by his exposure to the legacy of early 20th century avant-garde artists in the French capital, the examples included in the exhibition are striking syntheses of modernity and tradition.
Featured at the center of the gallery was an untitled 2012 example of Ma’s sculptural work in bronze, resembling a stack of rocks holding precariously in balance. Ma clearly defers to the literati tradition—rocks were a preferred subject of study in classical Chinese painting. In his sculptures, as in his paintings, the artist blurs the boundaries between figuration and abstraction. Against the backdrop of a large acrylic painting representing a body composed of oval and round rocks, it remains unclear whether one should be reading the outlines of the human body.
An entire wall was dedicated to an important series of woodblock prints that the artist realized at the time of the first Stars exhibition between 1979 and 1981. The prints, created in a minimalist black and white, were considered a radical departure from the socialist realist style that had dominated Chinese art since the Yan’an Forum in 1942. While some represent simple geometric motifs, others are portraits of ordinary struggling peasants. The variety in subject matter is intentional, reflecting Ma’s rejection of socialist realist doctrines, thus liberating the artist from his artistic duty to the Communist Party.
One print from the woodblock series depicts the artist in front of his canvas in his studio, seemingly caught mid-stride and portrayed as a dynamic figure. Surrounding him on the walls of his studio are abstract and figurative paintings—images that would not have circulated freely in the decades predating the print. It is difficult not to see the young Ma in this print, or at least recognize his courageous and restless spirit which has been present throughout the following decades of his tumultuous life. In response to the creative and intellectual challenges facing his generation, Ma developed a highly poetic body of work in reference to a rich tradition. Regardless of the medium he touched, as demonstrated in this modest yet poignant exhibition, the artist has never given up this intensity and vivacity and produced an oeuvre that never ceased to invent.