Painter Wang Qizhi knows Chairman Mao's face better than his own, but yet he never met the great leader. The 80-year-old Beijing artist, one of the three artists who collaborated on the giant portraits of Mao Zedong in Tian'anmen Square every year from 1951 to 1963, said he spent three decades studying the facial expressions of Mao, from the curve of his mouth to the wrinkles around his eyes.
"People often ask me how I can keep on painting a single man for so many years and what does that feel like. I can only say that's what I like to do and I feel fortunate enough to be able to paint Chairman Mao," said Wang, who painted Mao's image thousands of times for many projects between 1951 and 1978 and was the longest serving artist when the late leader was still alive.
A yellowed photograph of Mao, which was used as a prototype for the portraits, sits in the middle of Wang's bookshelf today. Wang said the photograph is very special to him and that it bears witness to 27 years of his career. Yet, he said he never had the opportunity to meet Mao.
As modern China's most famous icon, Mao's portrait in Tian'anmen Square needs to be renewed every year. As part of Wang's enormous contribution to this history, the artist helped establish the basic proportions and color of the portrait, as well as the tone for Mao's expression.
The first portrait was hung in 1949 and showed Mao in uniform wearing an army hat. The next year he appeared without the hat, but wearing a Zhong Shan jacket and looking up slightly, because authorities no longer wanted to present Mao as the army leader.
Wang and artists Zhang Zhenshi and Jin Shi - known as the third generation of Mao painters - collaborated on the third portrait in 1951 and added a "more human touch" to the leader. This style has remained unchanged for more than 50 years. Wang's portrayal shows Mao as both solemn as an icon of the nation and amiable as a leader of the people. Artist Ge Xiaoguang now repaints the portrait every year.
Recalling that early period, Wang said he considered it a tremendous honor to paint Mao's portrait, and that he was more excited than pressured by the massive responsibility. But painting a 6-m high portrait proved far more difficult than Wang had imagined. He had to constantly climb up and down scaffolding and run 100 m away for a better view of the giant painting in order to revise it. It was as much a physical challenge as a political one.
"There was a time when I, bored with the Mao painting over and over again, wanted to try something else, but my father stopped me and I came to understand the importance of my job. It shows to the outside world the image of China," he said.
Between the 1950s and 70s, Mao's portrait was the single most worshipped piece of art in China. Images and reprints of the great leader found their way onto the walls of thousands of Chinese homes, as well as at public venues such as the Great Hall of the People and railway stations. It was therefore a daily routine for Wang to sketch and brush the late leader's profile just in order to meet the needs of the population. Wang said he could not remember how many portraits he has painted.
Currently, Wang is working on a portrait of President Hu Jintao, through which he wants to express the pride of a nation rising rapidly and peacefully in the world.
"I'm not just painting Chinese leaders, it's more about the story of a China under change," he said. "The country has changed so tremendously over the past three decades that it has grown beyond my wildest imagination."