CHEN YIFEI (CHINA, 1946-2005)


CHEN YIFEI (CHINA, 1946-2005)
signed in Chinese, signed ‘Chen Yifei’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
233 x 75 cm.(90 3/4 x 29 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1998
Private Collection, USA
Shanghai Bookstore Publishing House, A Visual Life-a biography on Chen Yifei, Shanghai, China, 2006 (illustrated, p. 73)
Tianjin Yangliuqing Fine Arts Press, Chen Yifei, Tianjin, China, 2008 (illustrated, p. 83)
Shanghai People's Fine Arts Publishing House, Chen Yifei, Shanghai, China, 2010 (illustrated, p. 329)

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Lot Essay

These two paintings, Reflection (Lot 477)and Seduction(Lot 478), both derive from Chen Yifei's "Old Dreams of the Sea" series, begun in the 1990s. During this period, Chen's art continued to be based on his solid foundation of realist painting techniques and his own romantic, humanistic outlook; now, however, they are combined with a kind of cinematic framing of his subjects, allowing him to inject a great deal of poetic feeling into the reserved charm of Eastern aesthetics. A dense atmosphere of classical solemnity, along with an intoxicating sense of nostalgia for the Republican era of 1930s China, has become of the most representative series of works in Chen Yifei's oeuvre. In 2017, a work from the same series, Chen's Warm Spring in the Jade Pavillion, set a new sale record both for Chinese realist oil paintings and for Chen Yifei personally.

Unlike some other works in the "Old Dreams of the Sea" series which are large group portraits, the two paintings are especially unique in the series as vertically-oriented portraits of individual figures. Just as in traditional Chinese vertical scrolls of painting featuring beautiful women, the two figures here stand erect, heads slightly bowed, wearing the gorgeous costumes of the Republican era while holding palm-leaf fans, Neither painting elaborates more than necessary on their surroundings, placing them instead in backgrounds of dark brown; viewers follow them as they lower their heads, escaping for a moment from the turmoil of their private or romantic affairs into their own deep thoughts. The deep, hazy atmosphere of these paintings leaves much room for the fantasies of the viewer.

These Chen Yifei works feature wonderfully rich textures of light and shadow, evoking the artist's romantic nostalgia for the golden age of old Shanghai. As in Old Dream of the Sea, the film Chen directed in 1993, a filter seems to cast an antique yellow glow over the entirety of these two paintings, evoking a sense of entwining memory in the warm spreading haloes of light. Chen Yifei has clearly absorbed certain essentials in the use of light from Western classical masters such as the pre-Raphaelites and the Netherlandish tradition. Both portraits employ the same single light source as in Rembrandt, with diffuse light falling from above at an oblique angle. But unlike Rembrandt, with his dramatic shafts of light striking his subjects straight on, Chen subtly illuminates the contours of the women's faces and shoulders while letting their facial features almost disappear in shadow, so that the viewer can only guess at their state of mind. Light here is not just an aid to modeling these figures, but has become an integral part of the painting's subject.

Chen Yifei began his involvement with film in the 1990s, a period during which, in addition to his "Old Dream of the Sea" series, he filmed other cinematic works also set in old Shanghai. The dramatic tensions of the two portraits presented here have clearly benefitted from the language of the movie-maker's lens. The artist chooses an elevated angle from which to view his subjects, at the same time subtly exaggerating the element of perspective, making their forms even more slender and elongated. They stand slightly inclined, their figures forming a gentle "s" curve as in the sweet-tempered, delicate figures in ancient Chinese paintings of women. Unknown to them, a lens is trained on these women, and we become an "audience" as we view Reflection and Seduction : through the shadowy lamplight of old Shanghai, we enter another film by Chen Yifei, where two solitary figures speak their lines, quietly and pensively, alone before the camera.

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