For this year’s Asian Art in London, Rossi & Rossi is delighted to present a selection of works by Ma Desheng, one of China’s most distinguished contemporary artists and poets. A number of early Tibetan book-covers and Indian sculptures will also be on view.

Ma was one of the founding members in the late 1970s of the early avant-garde Stars Group—the first post-Mao art group to challenge the totalitarian Chinese government—which included fellow artists Huang Rui, Wang Keping, Qu Leilei and Ai Weiwei. In 1980, he was also instrumental in organising the first unauthorised public protest rally and march in China since the Communists came to power in 1949.

Selected Works 1979–87 will present a selection of the artist’s woodblock prints and ink paintings from the late 1970s to the 1980s. A self-trained artist, Ma’s boldly graphic woodblock prints are the result of his observations of peasants and workers in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. In direct contrast to the kitsch and brightly coloured Socialist Realism of propaganda imagery well established in China at the time, Ma’s highly expressive monochromatic prints were unusual for their portrayal of peasants and workers as sad, tired and distressed. The first Stars Art Exhibition, held in 1979 along the gates outside the National Museum, was poorly received by officials and resulted in the confiscation of the artworks after only two days, as well as Ma’s arrest.

Subsequent crackdowns in the early 1980s led to the artist’s relocation to Europe, where in Paris he began to reevaluate his relationship with traditional Chinese ink painting. It was during this period that Ma was able to explore the naked female body and develop his sensuous nude ink-wash series. Influenced by the modernist forms in ancient Han Dynasty sculpture (206 BCE–220 CE) and the traditions of Song Dynasty painting (960–1129 CE), in which emphasis is placed on a minimalist line that is charged with expressionistic emotion, Ma captures the essence of his subjects with thick, strong black lines and rubbed brushstrokes.

Born in 1952 in Beijing, Ma Desheng was deemed ‘unfit’ by the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts to be formally trained as an artist. So instead, he self-trained as a woodblock craftsman, producing highly expressive monochrome prints, and began working on his own with the traditional Chinese medium of ink and brush. His depictions of stones and, especially, his unromanticised portrayal of the working class and peasants offered a shocking and rare counter to the propaganda imagery offered at the time by the Chinese Communist Party.

Ma rose to prominence in the late 1970s as one of the founding members of the Stars Group, which organised two public exhibitions that were both quickly quashed by authorities. After being arrested for his role in arranging the group’s first show as well as a subsequent crackdown on ‘liberal thinkers’, the artist relocated to Europe in the 1980s. Following serious physical injuries incurred in a car accident in 1992, Ma was forced to begin working in a different medium; this time, with acrylic paint, creating large and bold pieces that continued to reflect the stone motifs touched upon in some of his earlier woodblock prints and ink paintings.

His works are held in public and private collections around the world, including the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK; the British Museum, London, UK; Fundação Oriente, Macau, China; the Fukuoka City Museum, Japan; Musée de Melun, France; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France; Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine, Paris, France; and the University Museum and Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong. Ma now lives and works in Paris.