F e a t u r e
Painting by Ladder and Crane
by Kong Hui
Above the heads of the crowds, the paternal visage of Chairman Mao faces his people all day from that big red wall. The portrait is a symbol of China.
"The portrait is so vivid, whenever I see it, I can remember what happened 50 years ago. I can even feel the touch of his flashing eyes," says Fu Lei, 74, a Beijinger passing down Changan Avenue.
"He looks just like he does in my textbook," says tourist Annette Hirst, 21, of Kiel, Germany. Between 100,000 and 200,000 tourists from home and abroad pass under his nose every day. Everybody but everybody knows that face. Few stop to think of the painter. Fewer still know that a new portrait goes up there every year.
"Before each National Day, the portrait must be renewed," says Ge Xiaoguang. "And each Labor Day, we have to clean it up with the help of a crane and lift. For sure, all this work is done during the night."
"Each time, starting a new portrait, I always have some completely new feeling. It is just like reopening the door of history."
Ge, 46, is the fourth artist devoting himself to painting the portrait, following Zhou Lingzhao, Zhang Zhenshi and Wang Guodong. As the student of Wang Guodong, Ge Xiaoguang began his formal painting in 1977. After five years doing the Tiananmen Square portraits of Marx, Lenin, Sun Yat-sen and Zhou Enlai that used to hang nearby, he graduated on to the Great Helmsman himself.
Almost every year, he finishes a new portrait with reference to archive materials and photos. He has now completed 19 and his career has lasted longest of the four.
Ge Xiaoguang has to admit he has a hard task. His 8-meter-high, 90 square-meter temporary studio is at the northwest corner of Tiananmen rostrum.
For fire-proofing and natural light requirements, the room is made of iron with a translucent glass roof. Every August and September, Ge sweats over the opus in this high-heat, high-pressure cooker.
"If lucky, I mean if the weather is fine, my painting will be done in 10 days. Twenty years ago, my teacher Wang Guodong used to depend on a ladder. I can work with the help of lift now."
"When drawing the portrait, I have to think about its coordination with the atmosphere of Tiananmen Rostrum and square, the influence of different kinds of sunlight and the visual impressions in different angles," says Ge.
"I try to make my works reflect an objective attitude. Tens of thousands of people visit Tiananmen Square. With various tastes, various knowledge about history, various attitudes towards Chairman Mao, they may have various opinions about the portrait, but the only thing I should do is to present the objective."
Walking the street, Ge is often recognized. Once when he went shopping, the young saleswoman recognized him. Ge became something of a TV star during the 45th anniversary.
At the time, it was a little bit dramatic: Before opening up, portrait painters were super secret.
"I don't know how many years I can carry on this task. Sooner or later, young people will take my place," says Ge.
"It is an honorable task. Artists are accustomed to observing things from the perspective of history. Chairman Mao occupied an uneraseable part of Chinese history. I admire him from my heart."
"I try to make my works reflect an objective attitude. Tens of thousands of people visit Tiananmen Square. With various tastes, various knowledge about history, various attitudes towards Chairman Mao, they may have various opinions about the portrait, but the only thing I should do is to present the objective." -- Ge Xiaoguang
10 Things You Never Knew About That Portrait
1. Chairman Mao's portrait was erected overnight on September 30, 1949. It was hanging underneath him when he announced New China on October 1, 1949.
2. It is 6 meters high and 4.5 meters wide.
3.The weight can reach up to 1.5 tons.
4. It is the biggest hand-made portrait in Asia.
5. It is made partly of fiberglass and reinforced plastic.
6. The portrait used to be hanged only on National Day and Labor Day for a total 10 days a year. After the Cultural Revolution, it has stuck.
7. It is replaced every year before National Day.
8. Painter Ge Xiaoguang, an employee of Beijing Art Company of the Beijing Advertisement Art Group, draws the portrait on assignment from his company. He gets nothing on top of his ordinary salary.
9. During the Chairman Mao memorial ceremony in 1976, the portrait was briefly replaced by a black-and-white image of Xinhua News Agency.
10. Portraits of other famous leaders used to also hang at the square. Now only Mao remains.