Born in 1948 in Sichuan province, Li Zhuangping is a painter and academic, readily recognised as a distinguished member of China’s modern romantic-realist school. Currently a professor at an arts institution, Li is best known for his oil paintings. A quiet, unassuming man, Li drew a tide of controversy in 2009 when he released his series of nude paintings. Given that there is a lot of artistic freedom in China, nude paintings don’t normally raise eyebrows. That was until Li Zhuangping received attractive offers from collectors after it had been revealed that the model was Li’s 23-year-old daughter. The backlash came fast and furious.
Yuan Zushe, an art critic, published an article in China Youth Daily criticising Li for painting his daughter in this way, claiming that it is immoral. “Such a practice could have a negative impact on society’s sexual mores.” he warned.
Li explained that for the theme of a “goddess”, he needed a subject who understands art in its purest form, untainted by outside influences. His daughter had been studying art since she was nine and he found her to be the ideal subject for the painting of a goddess. He didn’t just want his daughter to be the model. He also wanted her to be a co-creator.
Li Zhuangping and his daughter Li Qin faced widespread condemnation on social media. They reportedly stayed at home and did not visit relatives during the Spring Festival. Li Qin suffered from cyberbullying and many of Li’s peers and rivals in arts circles stood up to censure him. Though Li was ready for all these criticisms, there was something he had not foreseen.
Li Zhuangping was most perplexed when reports emerged that the images of his paintings were published in a foreign porn magazine. Apart from haters, Li also had supporters. Professor Lin Mu from Sichuan University found that Li Zhuangping was very courageous to challenge our perceptions of ethics and morality.
Chen Mo, a famous art critic in Chengdu said that he knew Li Zhuangping as an honest and upright man who is not prone to deviant thoughts. It was an open secret that Li Qin had been modelling for her father. Nobody said anything until the potential market value of the paintings took the world by storm. Some of these critics are not playing into the hands of potential speculators. Li decided that he would continue to paint his daughter’s “Dragon Girl Series” and “Flower Fairy Series”.
To absolve himself from the accusations of trying to profit from the controvesy, Li Zhuangping declared that these paintings are not for sale.
Although painting is his first love, Li Zhuangping was once a farmer. He also had plans to nurture his daughter as an artist. The public’s opinion had been as divided as that in arts circles. However, while the general consensus was that the paintings were very tastefully done and clearly not intended to be pornographic, some have voiced their disgust at Li’s disregard for traditional father-daughter decorum.
It should be noted that Li’s actions had not only the approval but the strong support of both his wife and his daughter. Li Qin said that she is also an artist and being a model for a great painter like her father was an honour. Given the theme of these works, one needs to be very open-minded about it.
Not all netizens concurred. Some felt that it’s a publicity stunt by the family to promote themselves. While Li declared that the paintings are not for sale, he had already been promoted like no other struggling artist in China could. One asked how fathers would feel if images of their daughters in the nude were circulated online.
I personally find it amazing that such controversy is even able to rear its beautiful head in a tightly controlled society like China. In Singapore, a fire hose would have been set upon any sparks of controversy of this nature.
While some of our local artists have voiced their support for Mr Li, I have no doubt that those who are offended will have the louder voice, giving the authorities every reason to come down hard on someone like Mr Li. That someone who has stirred so much controversy can still teach in an institution here would be most unthinkable.