Generally, the term ‘modern art’ refers to the style and philosophy of art produced from the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, a period defined by major societal change. The work of modern artists is usually associated with challenging past traditions or assumptions in the spirit of experimentation. Through their art, modern artists experiment with new ways of seeing and with fresh ideas about the nature of materials and functions of art.
The story of modern Mongolian art reflects the nation’s development over the past century. Following the Mongolian People’s Revolution in 1921, a new era began in the development of Mongolian art. Whereas art had previously been produced mainly by lamas in Buddhist monasteries, it now began to flourish as a secular practice. Mongolian artists were quick to learn new artistic techniques and styles from other countries, interpreting these according to their own local contexts. This Guide explores the main artistic styles that constitute modern Mongolian art: Mongol Zurag, Socialist Realism, European-style portraiture, Graphic Art
Art is both a mirror of society and a window through which we can view and deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves. It is a rich resource through which to consider historical and current ideas. Today, Mongolian artists continue to develop the field in various forms and directions, echoing the thoughts and hopes of Mongolian people.
A distinctive genre of Mongolian visual art, recognised as a national form of traditional painting, is “Mongol zurag”. Using the technique of mineral pigments on cloth, in the 19th century Mongol zurag artists began to diverge from the usual practice of depicting Buddhist icons to painting scenes from nomadic life. The genre differs from European painting through its unique artistic techniques and combination of colors that produce a flat, decorative quality. The style is also characterized by its vibrancy, limited perspective and use of humor. With roots in ancient rock art that depict the life of hunters and herders, a common subject explored by artists in this genre is the life and ways of Mongolian people.
Mongol zurag embodies the complex and extensive history of various cultural influences, including Buddhist, shamanistic and nomadic culture. Following several decades of socialist rule during which the genre was largely neglected, recent times have seen a revival of Mongol zurag, including many contemporary artists who are creatively integrating traditional techniques with contemporary motifs and themes. In this way, many young painters are reinventing the art of their ancestors and enriching that heritage through producing new works which reflect their own place and time.
In 1924, Mongolia gained independence as the People’s Republic of Mongolia. Over the next 15 years, according to its new Socialist principles, there occurred major purges and suppression of Buddhism in Mongolia. Many Mongolian artists were recruited to produce posters and other material that promoted the country’s Socialist ideology. As a result of close ties with the Soviet Union, the previous Buddhist aesthetic was gradually replaced with Western painting techniques. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Soviet artists and teachers introduced their art in Mongolia and a number of Mongolian artists were sponsored to train in the Soviet Union. Through this means, Mongolian artists learned to use oil paints and became familiar with Socialist Realism as well as 19th century Russian Realism and Impressionism. The rapidity with which foreign styles and techniques were adopted perhaps reflects the highly adaptive nature of nomadic Mongolians with a long history of cross-cultural contact. Although Mongolian artists experimented with a variety of European styles, Socialist Realism was dominant during the socialist regime, depicting the lives of the people working hard together to develop the country.
From the 1960s, Mongolian artists began to study in countries such as East Germany and Czechoslovakia where they picked up Modernist art styles. These artists broadened the range of Mongolian artistic expression and adopted a greater degree of individualism. Although discouraged by the socialist government, Mongolian artists created increasingly free and emotional compositions. By the 1980s, greater numbers of artists returned from study in Europe and modernism was flourishing in Mongolia. The Democratic Revolution of 1990 opened Mongolia to the world and artists were completely free to paint any subject and travel to any country abroad. New artist groups were formed committed to modern and contemporary art in reaction to the dominance of Realism over the past decades. Previously taboo topics, such as the Mongol leader Chinggis Khaan, and abstract art styles were explored with passion.
Today, the interests and styles of Mongolian artists continue to diversify even as they make the difficult adjustment to a market-economy. Artists have experienced challenges in terms of purchasing supplies and the limited growth of art infrastructure more generally. Nevertheless, many Mongolian artists are drawing upon their cultural heritage as inspiration for their work, exploring ideas of nature, power and Mongolian history. Art that addresses social issues is another important contemporary trend that is slowly developing. The democratic transformation has seen tremendous changes in Mongolian society, bringing many new ideas, lifestyle adjustments and also some social inequity. Mongolian modern artists in the 21st century are creating works which reflect the country’s experience of transition and nation-building. The Mongolian attachment to the expansive countryside, nomadic lifestyle and the overarching blue sky remain strong themes that are explored in contemporary Mongolian art.