It starts with a man, Mao Tse-tung (or Zedong), the notorious leader of Communism in China. He led Modern China from it's developmental stages in the 1920s and 30s, through the Civil War with the Chinese Nationalists in the 40s, the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949, until Mao's death in 1976. Mao is seen in much of the world as a villain, a tyrant, a monster. His reign saw the institution of policies such as the Great Leap Forward, the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and the Cultural Revolution, as well as countless persecutions and executions, and a crippling of the Chinese economy and culture that only recovered in the last twenty years. These policies caused an estimated 50-70 million deaths, including an estimated 45 million during the Great Leap Forward alone.
And yet, despite this reputation around the world, Mao was a hero in China during his life and in the years after his death for leading the people of China out of three thousand years of Imperial rule and domination by foreigners and capitalism. Part of this can be attributed to the repression of beliefs and information in China which exists even to this day: to speak out against Mao in China when he was alive was worthy of a death sentence, and even today it probably is not a great idea. But I argue that, for the Chinese people, it should not be that surprising that he is seen as a hero, especially when he was alive. The man is like George Washington for the Chinese people. He was believed to have led China to the freedom, wealth and power that an "ideal" Communist government is supposed to create. Only after his death, when new leaders came into power in China and reversed all of his policies, and China actually started to prosper, did people realize that maybe he wasn't so awesome after all. During his lifetime, he was like Moses and Washington rolled into one- he led the people out of "slavery" into Capitalism and powers both foreign and domestic, and he had "great" ideas for leading China into modernity. In China during Mao's life, he was a hero at every level, not just politically, but, more importantly for this story, culturally.
If, at this point, you are wondering why the hell I'm telling you all of this about Mao Zedong, I promise you I have a purpose. Mao was so beloved during his reign as Chairman that he became a main fixture of Chinese art for younger generations (although it must be noted that during this period, culture that did not revolve around Communism was seen as superfluous and was mostly banned). And now, finally, we reach the main part of our story. In 1967, a 22 year old art student named Liu Chunha created a portrait of a young Chairman Mao, allegedly the first oil painting Liu had ever created. The painting was titled "Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan," and portrayed Mao's journey as a 27 year-old man to assist striking coal miners in the city of Anyuan, in Hunan province. This was some of his earliest work as a Communist organizer, work that gained him much of his early fame and support. Below is that painting:
I'm not an art expert, but that is pretty talented for any artist, especially one who has never worked with oils before. Mao's wife declared the painting a "revolutionary masterpiece." The painting was featured in a number of exhibitions, especially those trumping up Mao's role in the Anyuan coal miners strikes (part of the reason this painting was so important is because it was debated just how important he really was, and Mao used paintings like this to prove his importance). The work was so exquisite that people began to try to emulate it, not only in China but around the world.
Now, the story is going to get weird, and slightly convoluted, because the sources I am working with here are old and conflicting. At some point in late 1969, a member of the press in the Vatican press office took a look at a painting they had hanging there and, presumably, said, "Wait a minute. I know that guy! Umm...that's not good." The Vatican, of course, is the Holy City of the Catholic Church and the seat of the Pope. The painting the member of the press was looking at? He was looking at was a copy of Liu Chunha's painting. Which of course, was a painting of Mao. Chairman Mao. One of the most brutal, murderous men in human history. To bring the irony to a whole new level, Mao is also famous for being Communist. You know, the philosophy that calls religions like Christianity the "opiate of the masses." The philosophy that, for the most part has banned, restricted and persecuted religion in any country it controls. Yeah, that's a little bit of an oversight by whoever hung that painting in the Vatican. They may as well have had a picture of Stalin and Hitler hugging hung next to Mao, that was how out of place the painting was.
The obvious question is, how did that picture get there? Like I said earlier, after Liu Chunha released the painting it became relatively famous, especially in China, although it obviously got around to other parts of the world. And this is where it gets even weirder. No one is really sure how the Vatican got the painting. Most newspaper articles about the incident say the painter/copier was an 86 year-old Italian painter, Luigi Carnaveli. If the newspapers from the time period are to be believed, and the artist was Sig. Carnaveli, then we still have no explanation how the painting got to the Vatican. Sig. Carnaveli's son, Lanfranco, said he had no explanation for how his father's painting had gotten to the Vatican. He said that he had loaned it to a friend, whom he did not identify, and that he had been "trying to reach him for an explanation." First of all, why are you loaning your father's painting to a friend, and secondly, of course you were trying to get an explanation. Your dad's Mao painting ended up in the Vatican.
Regardless of who painted it, we still need to discuss the unlikelihood that this incident could even have happened. This was at the Vatican, the Holy City of the Catholic Church, worth hundreds of billions of dollars. They had no one fact checking the art they were putting on public display in their PRESS OFFICE? The articles I am looking at as I read this argue that the man IS wearing a tunic and does "look like a priest", whatever that means. I can see how they could argue that the man looks like he is wearing a cassock. Or, they could be the traditional robes worn by Chinese people throughout history. The guy in the painting looks just like Mao. There was no one in the Vatican that said, "Hey, that is one of the most anti-Catholic men in the world sitting in the painting next to Pope Paul IV."
The last incredible piece of this story is that the Vatican DIDN'T IMMEDATELY TAKE DOWN THE PAINTING. Msg. Fausto Vallaine, the Vatican Press Secretary, told reporters, "What can I say? The painting was sent to us as a gift. We hung it up. That's all." First of all, if that's the only benchmark a painting needs to meet to be hung in the Vatican, there is probably some weird stuff hanging there. Secondly, "What can I say?" Really? That's your best justification? Vallaine tried to justify the painting by arguing, basically, "Well...it IS already up..." That's OK in some situations, but probably not for the Mao portrait hanging in the Vatican. The earliest newspaper articles I can find on this subject are from December 24, and state the painting had been up for "some time." An article from December 31 does state that the Vatican had finally taken down the portrait, about a week after the story hit the press. But the reason those articles cited for removing the portrait? Sources said the Vatican grew tired of requests to photograph the painting, all of which were refused. So they took it down not because of who it portrayed, but because they were tired of telling people not to photograph their blunder. When asked what happened to the painting, Vallaine said it "was of no importance."
Msgr. Vallaine later tried to justify the painting further. Apparently this rendition of the painting had Mao against a red backdrop, about which Vallaine said, "Look, even if it does represent Mao...it shows him as an element of destruction, with the flaming ruins of what he wrought in the background." When Sig. Carnaveli's son was asked about the meaning of the painting, however, he had a different response. He said that a notation, "Alba" (dawn in Italian), that was on the painting could be taken quite literally. It was "the dawn of an idea." When asked about his father's response to the story, Sig. Carnaveli said, "He just laughed." As we all should.
- Akbar, Arifa. "Mao's Great Leap Forward 'killed 45 millions in 4 years.'" The Independent, September 17, 2010. Accessed August 20, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/maos-great-leap-forward-killed-45-million-in-four-years-2081630.html
- Han, Suyin. 1972. The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution, 1853-1954. Boston: Little Brown.
- "Mao is no clergyman but he's in Vatican." Ottowa Citizen, December 24, 1969. Accessed online: https://news.google.com/newspapersnid=2194&dat=19691224&id=iaIyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=uwFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2731,3010121&hl=en
- "Mao Zedong," Wikipedia, Last modified August 14, 2015, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mao_Zedong.
- "Painting of Mao stays in Vatican." Eugene Register-Guard, December 24, 1969. Accessed online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1310&dat=19691224&id=dXozAAAAIBAJ&sjid=N-EDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6695,5824769&hl=en
- Perlmutter, David D. 2007. Picturing China in the American Press: The Visual Portrayal of Sino-American Relations in Time Magazine. Lexington: Lexington Books.
- Perry, Elizabeth J. "Reclaiming the Chinese Revolution." The Journal of Asian Studies 67.04 (2008): 1147. Online. http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/10885502/Perry_Reclaiming.doc?sequence=1
- "Vatican Removes Mao Art." Kentucky New Era, December 31, 1969. Accessed online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=266&dat=19691231&id=Pe8rAAAAIBAJ&sjid=EAYGAAAAIBAJ&pg=1217,8034733&hl=en
- "Vatican portrait not priest, but Mao as youth." Toledo Blade, December 22, 1969. Accessed online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19691222&id=BCpPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=9AEEAAAAIBAJ&pg=3229,4712234&hl=en