Details
CHEN YIFEI
(Chinese, 1946-2005)
Lady with Flute
signed 'Chen Yifei' in Pinyin (lower right); inscribed '24 x 29' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
61 x 74 cm. (24 x 29 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1990
Provenance
Christie's Hong Kong, 25 May 2009, Lot 909
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
SHIBUYA SEIBU Department Store, Exhibition in Japan '90: Chen Yife i, exh. cat., Tokyo, Japan, 1990 (illustrated, p. 30).
Exhibited
Tokyo, Japan, SHIBUYA SEIBU Department Store, Exhibition in Japan '90: Chen Yifei, 1990.

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Lot Essay

Chinese artist Chen Yifei moved to New York in 1980 to continue his study. The contemporary American society was facing challenges on the recognition of reality, and at the same time pursuing avant-garde art. This particular situation prompted Chen, a Chinese oil painter, to ponder over and analyse different issues, including the Western concept of Realism in the 1980s, and the development of Realism in China over half a Century. The debate and comparison opened up new perspectives for Chen's art and a whole new realm of Chinese aesthetics of Realism, bringing Chinese representational oil painting to the international stage.
Conceptual art, video, pop art, installation, and new media art prevailed in the American art circles from the 1980s to the 1990s. With the advanced technologies including computers, Internet and digital images, the boundaries between "real" and "unreal" were blurred. Public expectations of art shifted from visual pleasure to art taht could challenge traditional values and experience. Even the saying of "Painting is dead" surfaced. Western artists, such as Gerhard Richter and Andreas Gursky, began to investigate the authenticity of visual art, adding a layer of contemporaneity to Realism. Gursky chose to present the orderly world in great details (Fig. 1). He produced large-scale outdoor hyper-real photographic works from a panoramic perspective, bringing shock to the accustomed cognition and experience of the public. Richter, at the same time, challenged the relationship between photography and paintings. He made use of fuzzy images to imply that artists could not fully convey the essence and truth of an object. His Photorealism suggested that oil painting, the traditional medium, still had the ability to challenge the truth (Fig. 2 & 3).
Since the late 1920s, artists and educators, led by Xu Beihong, commenced the education of Western classical Realism by setting up schools. From the 1950s to 1970s, due to the Chinese political climate, realistic art became the mainstream painting style. Learned from the Soviet style, Chinese oil painters from the second and third generation, including Wu Zuoren and Lu Sibai, were heavily influenced by communism and were inclined to a social reality through art. Chen made a breakthrough in both concept and style of the Realism established in China over half a Century. From his contemporary eye, visual art alters from the so-called "reality" to "imagination." Even the reality in photographic works only presents one aspect of the truth. Chen created the expressive Water series and Musician series, turning Chinese Realism into a highly idealized style. In 1984, the New York Times and the ARTnews magazine described Chen's style as "Romantic Realism". Chen's works, with rich inner emotions, deeply impressed and amazed the viewers.
Chen devoted his life to the development of visual art effects, believing in the presentation and appreciation of beauty. To Chen, art works are "not only for people to appreciate and enjoy, but also carry social functions with depth. An artist should not be limited to create beautiful art works, but also maintain a pleasant social environment, pertain to the value systems of integrity and courtesy, constrain the society morals, and purify the human soul." Through Chen's Musician series, we see him as an artist who could reach into a person's inner thoughts, an artist who's particularly sensitive to the surroundings. Chen's achievements in his Musician series are how he makes use of character design, light, and composition to guide the viewer from the visual to the sensual, and to appreciate music harmony and human talent of creating beautiful things. His series indicate how the artist pursues the connection between objects, explores the inherent connection between painting and music, and shows the unique aesthetics of the Eastern culture.
Constructing the Romantic Atmosphere
Chen fully utilized light, an abstract yet expressive element in oil painting, to indicate the poetic and romantic atmosphere. In Lady with Flute (Lot 23) created in 1990, Chen highlighted his meticulously created lighting effects with a dark background. The focus of the light source illuminated the facial features of the character. He then painted with grinding techniques to deal with light on the face, shoulders, and arms, producing more scattered and dispersed light. William Blake, the renowned romantic artist in the early 19th Century of Europe, expressed emotions with light, creating heartfelt religious paintings. For instance, in his Angels Opening the Holy Sepulchre (Fig. 4), the angel removes the shroud and pushes away stones for the resurrected Jesus. With the dark background, the light seems to penetrate characters' bodies and spread out from inside with a feel of haziness. A traditional and solemn religious theme is suddenly soaked in human emotions. In the same way, Chen's use of light brought the audience into a picturesque ideal world.
Combining Vocabulary of Classical and Modern Paintings
Chen's refined painting techniques make the bronze hair, alabaster skin, charming eyes, and evening gown with blinking sequin super realistic in Lady with Flute. In order to enhance the sculptural and threedimensional aspects of the character, Chen painted in layered colours on facial contours. His delicate grinding techniques deliberately reduced traces of strokes, making the painting almost as a photograph when viewed from a distance. While successfully creating a romantic atmosphere, Chen pushed the boundaries between photography and painting.
Eyes, facial expressions and the body are undoubtedly the most important elements in oil painting of realistic portraits. They are also the key to interaction and communication with the audience. Chen's characters illustrated how he carefully fused the classical body language with the Western contemporary abstract concepts, the idea with which Kandinsky and Malevich deconstructed human bodies and objects to dots, lines, and surfaces. Chen painted from an angular perspective. The straight arms and forearms of the female performer in his work form an elegant right angle, with one in the front and one at the back, expressing a sense of calm and great expectation. Chen, holding onto Realism with faith, progressed with time and kept inserting new energy to traditional realist paintings.
Lady with Flute is one of the few portraits by Chen with a landscape background. Similar to the classical Western realistic paintings (Fig. 5), Chen often employed a darker background, creating contrasting affects as if in a theatrical scene. The row of buildings was deliberately depicted in a single colour in order to capture the solemn moment of the beautiful sunset. Even with the landscape in the background, the viewer could hardly identify the time and space the flautist is associated with, which symbolizes harmony regardless of time and space. It echoes Chen's pursuit for eternal beauty and sincere emotions. It expresses the "truthful" feeling which could not be sensed by hands but by heart.
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