SANDGLASS - THE PASSAGE OF TIME
Chen Yifei was the first Chinese artist, following China's period of opening and reform, to make a name for himself in the United States and United Kingdom. He had received instruction in oil painting from Soviet artist Konstantin Maximov during Maximov's visit to China. However, Chen's grasp of the medium extended beyond his training in Soviet realism to incorporate the essentials of European classical realism, which allowed Chen to develop a realist style completely his own. Within two years after arriving in New York, he had caught the attention of Dr. Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum and founder of the Hammer Gallery. In 1985, on a visit to China, Dr. Hammer presented a Chen Yifei painting, Hometown Memories— Twin Bridges , as a gift to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. To overseas observers, Chen Yifei's artistic arrival was a harbinger for the start of a new era in China for fine arts.
Chen's Beauties on Promenade (Lot 30), painted in 1997, embodies the quintessence of Chen's career. Following over half a century of realist oil painting in China after Xu Beihong's groundbreaking achievements in the medium, this work represents a breakthrough and a fresh perspective from a Chinese artist traveling the path of realism in international art. The pursuit of Chen's realistic figurative painting is not about mirroring, he in fact explores the relationship between figurative painting, history and time, to illustrate the authenticity of history and time. With this theory in mind, Chen borrows poetic mood in Chinese art as well as theatricality to break away from classical realism. He then creates unique brushstroke showing haziness and movement to depict the continuity of time when revisiting history. Chen's theory of depicting the authenticity of history and time through realism transcends classical realism. The factors of time and space discussed in Chen's realistic painting are the common topic which artists in the contemporary era consider and discuss.
PROGRESSING MODERN CHINESE REALISM
The subjects of Chen Yifei's Old Dreams of the Sea series reflect both Chen's personal memories and his search for the Shanghai of the 1930s; thus, they represent both a city and an era. What Chen portrayed in these figures, however, was not their personalities or life stories; instead, Chen used them as expressive tools, vehicles through which he expounded his personal view of history.
For this reason, Beauties on Promenade takes on a highly theatrical aura, portraying a scene strictly controlled by Chen Yifei in his studio. Every aspect, including his subjects' clothing, their hair ornaments, the items they carry, and the careful lighting, was arranged meticulously by Chen. The intent was to elevate the personal portrait to a higher level, connecting it with history and society, while at the same time, breaking with the tradition of modern Chinese historical painting that had begun with Xu Beihong's modern realist painting in the '30s. Included in that tradition were the Chinese historical painters of Shanghai and Suzhou, principally Yan Wenliang and Tao Lengyue, who simply sought to depict people and scenery in their works. Beyond that, there were also the realist styles borrowed from the Soviet Union in the 1950s under the banner of socialist realism.
Chen began creating historical paintings in 1972, when his Eulogy of the Yellow River, with its incisive and magnetic energy, brought him instant recognition before he had even turned 30. We can also sense, from a later 1979 work, Thinking of History from My Space, the power of Chen's intent to impact traditional Chinese historical painting. The artist himself is seen in the painting, silhouetted from the rear; with his back to the viewer, he stands in as a proxy for the modern audience, facing a memorial that encompasses all the vicissitudes of history. This was a monumental step forward in Chinese historical painting, breaking through the frozen or disregarded sense of zeitgeist of earlier historical paintings by making a connection between history and the present. By composing such a presentation, Chen advanced the art of Chinese historical painting, adding a more modern feel and sparking a deeper connection with the viewer.
Chen Yifei's unique view of history, and the timeless sense of beauty he drew out of the indelible traces of past events with his Water Villages series, brought him immediate fame in the United States. Ten years after completing Thinking of History from My Space, Chen once again made a breakthrough in his own historical painting with his Old Dreams of the Sea series in the 1990s. In this 1997 work, Beauties on Promenade, the artist melds his subjects with their historical setting, seeking to raise the art of portrait painting to a new and higher level. In this way, he forged a stronger connection between his subjects, their world, and their history. The connection to history is achieved through setting the scene and giving a voice to the great era of Shanghai in the 1930s. Additionally, Chen traces history even further back to the golden age of the Tang and its glorious artistic and cultural history.
In his youth, as a student at the Shanghai College of Art, Chen Yifei had become fascinated by classical Chinese poetry. The name of this masterpiece, Beauties on Promenade, is taken from a poem of the same name by Du Fu, the famous poet of the Tang era:
In clear fresh weather on the third day of the third month, Groups of lovely women appear along the Chang'an waterfront.
Sophisticated, beautiful, graceful, and remote,
Their skin is soft, their figures ideal in shape.
Their embroidered silk dresses, radiant at dusk,
Have patterns of phoenixes and unicorns, in gold and silver.
And what are they wearing on their heads?
Jade green ornaments that drape beside their temples.
And what do we see at their backs?
Waistbands mounted with pearl that snug dresses close to their bodies.
While the setting for Beauties on Promenade is the old Shanghai of the '30s, this wonderful portrayal of four elegant, confident women on a leisurely stroll with their birdcages also suggests the ambience of Tang Dynasty—the sense of women from noble families with their elegant statures, sense of distinction, and attention to detail in their attire. Chen deliberately connects 1930s Shanghai with the Tang Dynasty, as two periods of China's history most representative of its classical accomplishments and its modernity, while also revealing the continuity of its culture.
In Western contemporary art, traces of a similar attitude toward classical art have been found in the works of artists such as Goya, Otto Dix, and Manet. Even the American contemporary portrait artist John Currin often returns to classical realism for inspiration, as shown in works such as his 1999 Nice 'n Easy. Currin shocked contemporary critics with its image of two nude females, combining poses typical of an adult magazine with the artistic DNA of earlier great masters. These classical figures have evolved in Currin's art, which depicts them in a freeze-frame style that captures their moments of interaction.
A BREAKTHROUGH IN CLASSICAL REALIST TECHNIQUE
With his solid academic grounding in realist painting and sculpture, Chen Yifei was able to grasp the essentials of European classical realism. Then, on the basis of that style, which had evolved over hundreds of years, he developed an utterly unique brushwork style of his own, suitable for his realist oil painting. Classical realism employed exceptionally fine and precisely placed strokes of colour, through which artists precisely rendered the dimensionality of their subjects, the depth of the background, and the reflection of light. Instead, Chen used ‘planes of colour’ in a manner somewhat similar to the Impressionists.
In Beauties on Promenade, Chen has made use of the ‘colour planes’ technique from modern art in his classical realist painting, allowing him to produce brushwork that was broad, dense, textured, and mottled, yet at the same time, elegant and romantic.
This unique new style of brushwork allowed Chen Yifei, in a number of areas, to produce pictorial effects different from those of the classical realists and their technique of fine coloured lines.
The first is that the abstract, mottled, and ‘frosted’ or textured strokes Chen employed to create a hazy effect in his pictorial spaces, resembling the effect produced with a certain special photographic lense. With such strokes, Chen could fully express a nostalgic, romantic atmosphere in handling subjects relating to history, the past, and the passage of time.
A distant echo of this feeling can be found in the early realist oil paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter, who in the 1970s deliberately introduced a photographic vocabulary into painting. Richter employed very fine brushwork, and while his colours may intermingle on the canvas, there is little sense of texture. The effect is flat, like photographic developing paper, and his realist landscapes seem like scenic photographs taken from the window of a moving train. What the lens captures is not a static scene, but a vague or blurred image due to movement and the element of time, allowing stark realism to appear more dreamlike. Chen, on the other hand, introduces a more cinematic vocabulary, intently pursuing the sense of continuous motion and romantic atmosphere. In fact Chen's Old Dreams of the Sea paintings did have a cinematic origin.
Chen Yifei pays attention to various kind of visual effects apart from painting and contributes to his pursuit of "macro vision." The cinematic visual languages expressed by camera are also a major inspiration for Chen's oil paintings. In Beauties on Promenade, it is as if Chen were carrying film equipment and following the four women across a fully decorated stage set, creating a sense that what we see is just a frame from an ongoing, connected narrative. The haziness through Chen’s unique brushstroke fully expresses the nostalgic and romantic mood of the history which the artist describes.
Additionally, Chen Yifei's brushwork itself, in which colours seem to intermingle, exudes a sense of movement and light reflection The effects of this brushwork produce a sense of flow and direction somewhat like the spreading ink techniques in Chinese painting. These allow Chen to depict subjects that almost seem to be in motion, as in Beauties on Promenade, in which the effect is so convincing that we actually feel the four women with their birdcages move as they continue on their way. This unusual brushwork, with its vague haziness and sense of imminent motion, adds weight to the notion that Chen Yifei hoped to be considered among the ranks of the traditional Chinese painters.
Chen Yifei's innovative brushwork in oils, combining the techniques of Chinese ink-wash with the colour planes of the Impressionists, has been as significant in marking out a new era as the Pointillism of the Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in the late 19th century.
CHEN YIFEI IN AN INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT
Looking at Chen Yifei's Beauties on Promenade from an international standpoint shows how his handling of compositions parallels the development of another artist, the British portrait painter, Lucien Freud. In the '80s and 90's, Freud determinedly painted a series of works relating to artists of earlier generations, including Watteau, Chardin, Ingres, Constable, and Cézanne, in his pursuit of artificial settings, the self, and a sense of humour.
In 1981, Freud produced a painting based on a famous work by Watteau, dating from 1712, known as Pierrot Content. He exerted, what was for him, unprecedented control over the subject matter of this work, including telling his models he wanted to use Watteau as a blueprint, making them look at photos of the Watteau painting, and asking them to dress specially for it. Freud himself described the process in this way: 'The first time in my career as a portrait painter that I've given my subjects secondary importance.' He also described this work, Large Interior W11 - After Watteau, as being 'a little bit decorative.' For Freud, Large Interior W11 - After Watteau clearly expressed his sense of the theatrical.
A common message behind both Freud's late-period work Large Interior W11 - After Watteau and Chen Yifei's Beauties on Promenade is that portrait art need not be merely biographical. While it can suggest aspects of the subject's inner world, it can also point toward the historical, can extend history, and can connect with the world. Portrait paintings can be thought of as connective devices which, following the artist's encounter with history, form a passage between past and present. Such a direction, in fact, has often appeared at various times in the history of both Eastern and Western art.
BEYOND THE CONCEPT OF REALIST PAINTING
Richter's early experiments with introducing photographic effects resulted in oils that were realistic yet dreamlike, and provided a new direction for realist painting. The large-scale photographic works of Andreas Gursky similarly take real scenes as their subject. His scenic views are then processed into surrealistic digital versions of themselves, which are completely convincing; the viewer is unable to tell at first glance which parts are real and which aren't. Only logical analysis can lead a viewer to slowly realize that one of his scenes is not a directly photographed work.
The elements of Chen Yifei's work which root his compositions in both realism and their unreal aura, are the same elements of poetry and artistic conception that have always informed Chinese art. While Beauties on Promenade is painted in a realist style, it represents a period of remembrance, of reflection, and of history—it is representative of an era. The use of models makes Chen's painting about real people, yet the degree of control he exerts to produce a scene, a setting, that is his alone, makes the painting also about an imagined ideal.
Richter, Gorsky, and Chen Yifei each sought to make breakthroughs in their realist presentations, to use different means—dreams, imagination, surrealism, scenic settings, the stage—to break through our previous conceptions of 'realism.' By breaking free from the binds that connect 'realism' and ‘reality,’ each of artist, not least Chen Yifei, provided new directions for realist art.