Specialist Bianca Chu discusses Funérailles Pape Jean-Paul II with Yan Pei-Ming.
Bianca Chu: First, how did you choose the subject of your painting?
Yan Pei-Ming: At the time when I was painting John Paul II, he had not died yet, he was still living. I don’t think it is a problem to paint someone’s death before it happens, because at some point, they will die. This is destiny and a few [years] after I painted him, the pope did actually pass away. This subject of the pope, in general, has been a subject for Western artists, painted by Western artists, but for Eastern artists this was not really possible so I chose a pope too. Of course, portraying a pope has always been an expression of splendour, of elegance and power - this kind of sentiment. So, I painted his death. This subject, a funeral of a pope, is about a new interpretation of this figurehead. That is to say, no matter how much power you hold or how famous you are, death is an inevitable part of life. No matter what kind of person you are, you will always be confronted with this reality.
BC: Now, looking at your entire oeuvre, we see that portraiture is the most frequent genre that you paint.
YPM: Oh yes, it is because I am very interested in man, in humanity or rather humanity’s development and transformation. Man is very important, because art, in the end, is for Man to gaze upon. Man performs as both the subject and observer so looking at my art should be like looking in a mirror.
BC: In painting your pope, you also entered into the long Western tradition of depicting popes.
YPM: Yes, historically speaking this tradition has always been reserved for European painters.
BC: For example, Titian, Velázquez, Bacon, they all painted popes.
YPM: But they never painted their funeral. The popes they painted, for example, Francis Bacon, the popes he painted were always living creatures, crying out. And Titian’s popes were always very beautiful, while Velázquez’s were of the utmost elegance. And the one I painted here is different, devoid of life.
BC: Looking at yours, it does not necessarily look like John Paul II, in fact, it could be anyone.
YPM: Yes, that’s right. I created a portrait of Man
BC: Now, I would like to discuss your use of colour. Of course, your paintings have a very distinct palette and you seem to use colour with a specific intention in mind. Your palette is typically dual monochromes of black and white, red and white, with combinations of grey. For this painting, it is mostly white and grey, which is also a shade of black. Can you explain a little bit about how you choose colour? What process do you go through? It seems like a matter of great contemplation for you.
YPM: Of course. Since this is a funeral, I painted it with more variations of white.
BC: But why? In Europe, black would be the colour most commonly used to symbolise mourning.
YPM: That’s right, but in Asia, white is the colour of mourning, and so I fused these two cultures together I painted it very white, like shangtian [going up to Heaven], very light.
BC: You have also painted other black, white and grey portraits, with their subjects in the same position, lying supine. For example, your 2000 painting of Mao Zedong and your recent paintings of Gandhi and JFK from this year that are currently being exhibited in Doha.
YPM: Yes, again to do with the concept of death... There is one point: John Paul II’s death was natural, as was lao Mao’s [Old Mao’s]. However, the deaths of JFK and Gandhi were the result of political assassinations. The meaning, implications and situations are completely different. One is ‘to be killed’ and another ‘to die of natural causes’: they are two very polar processes. In the first case, someone with malicious intent ended a life; they did not know the end of their life was imminent.
BC: For me, your paintings, particularly this painting, all have an enigmatic, melancholic quality to them.
YPM: It’s quite a dramatic aesthetic. It’s the expression of a violence, the violence of life today.
BC: For me, this painting is not as violent as your other works.
YPM: Because he died of internal and therefore invisible causes. It’s really natural, peaceful, but there is pain and suffering at the end of his life. We can see it. He suffers tremendously. He’s got Parkinson’s and it’s the old age. It is the suffering of mankind. He remembers the power and wants to keep it.
BC: Is this work part of a series?
YPM: In total, there are two, one of which is still at my home, in my personal collection.
BC: This must be an important subject and set of works.
YPM: Yes, it is possible I will need this painting in a few years.
BC: Why is that?
YPM: In a few years, I will have a big exhibition in Avignon at the Palais des Papes.
BC: What a coincidence, the palace of popes!
YPM: Yes, there may be an entire exhibition there dedicated to all the pope paintings I have created.
BC: Thank you so much, Ming, for sitting down with me today to discuss your painting Funérailles Pape Jean-Paul II. It has been an absolute pleasure to have this opportunity.
YPM: Thank you. I am happy, too. This painting is very important to me.
Post-War & Contemporary Art