'When I was doing the Tibetan series, I kept thinking of Millet. I was doing those in pursuit of my ideals of French realism.'
1980 marks the turning point for Realism in China. It was a time when artists unshackled themselves from ideology, returning to realism as the means art through which to portray the country and its daily life, such a humble and simple move that it masks the ways in which New Chinese Realism became the primary movement leading an exploration of the spirit of the times, revealing individual artistic and philosophical musings, and even the existential state and emotional impulses beneath the ordinary lives of the nation. Their works opened up a new direction for creation, emphasizing humanistic concerns and developing an entirely new iteration of modern realism. Chen was one of the representative pioneers of these artists. Among his contemporaries in the early 1980s, Chen was the first to have a solo exhibition in the United States. His Tibetan Series is often read in parallel with Luo Zhongli's Father as the formative milestone of New Realism in China, a fusion of Western modernism, but whose direction took root in the native culture and historical background of China. The artistic and historical value of these paintings by Chen and Luo then was comparable to that of Millet's The Gleaners and Van Gogh's Potato Eaters.
Tibetan Group (Lot 1346) is a rare work from Chen Danqing famous series, describing a group of Tibetans walking on the streets of Lhasa. Chen Danqing's unique compositional techniques are exemplified in this painting, which is not arranged with only a single-point perspective. The figures are arranged in a row, overlapping one another, to create a sense of distance and depth. The characters on both sides, with only parts of their bodies exposed, appear to be moving in or out of the scene. The free-form, vivid composition is imbued with a sense of motion and the dynamics of life, manipulated by a layering effect which is as rich as and varied as a scene taken from a drama or a film. The scorching sun, along with the vitality and heartiness of the Tibetan people, are represented with the intense bright tones and thick brushstrokes, merging theme and form together. The style is robust and lively, sprinkled with delicate details of spatial arrangement and tonal gradient, as is evident in the Tibetan costumes, the backward glance of the yellow dog, the rugged stone wall, and the solemn expression in the old woman's eyes, exemplifying Chen's vigorous pursuit of realistic themes and painting techniques. The blue sky in Tibet's street (Lot 1347) from the series of sketches, illustrates one of the main features in Chen's paintings. Being an intensified characterization of Tibetan life, the entire depiction of the delicate texture of the streets and the brick buildings is subtle but full of substance.
Portrait of a Woman (Lot 1345) was one of Chen's many figure paintings in 1996. It can be derived from the timing of the theme that it was done by Chen when he was sojourning in New York. Nude (Lot 1348) was created after Chen had returned China. Despite their passage of time in execution, both portraits reflect Chen's spontaneous love for realistic, daily life subject matters. The portrayal of people was not only limited to an objective representation, but emphasis was put on the unique charm of the people and the sense of real life, with the use of bright and intense colours, and yet by no means deprived of classic appeal. The artistic style may have been borrowed from that of Russian realistic paintings which Chen relished at a young age. The artist has recalled an oil painting called The Italian Girl by a Russian artist, printed in rich colour at the back of a playing card, which his father found in a trash bin and brought home to him. Chen then replicated it for weeks until the replica was as vivid as the original painting.
"I'm collecting various albums of Chinese paintings. I am very picky ... I was outraged when I found Guo Zhongshu's Farewell to Wangchun on the desk of my painter friend Liu Dan. Who wouldn't mind lending me the authentic works? It was not that I loved paintings therefore I painted. Quite on the contrary, I got obsessed in painting after I started to paint, and my obsession has gradually developed into an addiction that I cannot help myself," as quoted by Chen Danqing in "The Afterlife of Painting" , the Journal of Nanjing Institute of the Arts, in 1999.
After Guo Zhongnu of the Northern Song's Saying Farewell at Wangchuan (Lot 1349) is a traditional "Chinese" painting in oil by Chen, a series in which he replicates both Western masterpieces and ancient Chinese ink paintings with oil painting techniques. Unlike the mechanical reproduction of original works, whether in prints or Pop art, Chen has undergone very deep aesthetic thinking in the replicating, or more precisely, re-creating process, where he has put in much of his thoughts. It actually involves some high-leveled discussion of aesthetic issues, such as "conceptual art", "reflections on art by the means of art," "whether classics can be reborn," and "reflections on Chinese replicating traditions", to reproduce the free-styled strokes of ink paintings with realist oil painting techniques. It is exactly the replication of Chinese paintings by Western media which enables Chen to develop a detached perspective of an outsider to muse on Chinese traditions like, as he put it, an "addictive obsession". The political, social and cultural issues surrounding many Chinese contemporary artists in their upbringing discouraged them from returning to the traditions of Chinese ink painting. This line of creation by Chen, can therefore be regarded as one of its kind, as both the reminiscence and redevelopment of the spirit of China, in which the thoughts on the possibilities of Chinese contemporary art are deepened.