Chen Yifei

The cultural nostalgia of Chen Yifei

Everything about the man is romantic – from his notions of heroism, to the landscapes teeming with crystal clear waters; his love for music and poetry; his affinity towards unspoilt Tibet; and his spirited beauties. Chen Yifei’s romance is with life itself, and his spirit resonates deeply within his works. Chen believed that "art should have an influential social function besides being appreciated and comforting people. It is not merely a visual art form which creates aesthetic; it preserves a tranquil environment, structures social ethics and moral, and purifies the human soul."

The very essence of his aesthetic pursuit, it seems, was his deep nostalgia and strong sentimental connection to the natural scenery of the various countries he lived in or visited, as well as to the city of Shanghai, where he grew up. He painted realistic portraits and impressionistic scenery, of Western musicians playing modern instruments, Chinese musicians playing traditional instruments, minstrels in medieval garb, Tibetan villagers, and ballet dancers. His landscapes extend from Venice in Italy to the canals of his native Zhejiang Province.

The most fascinating part of his career was his attempt to combine the elements from his native country with the Western traditions of both realism and impressionism.

In her article – Imagined Nostalgia, Dai Jinhua cites a short essay in the journal Hua Cheng (??) by Xiao Yan (??), entitled The Right to Nostalgia: “Nostalgia is not only a kind of remembrance, but a kind of right. We all have a longing for the past – lingering over some mundane objects because these mundane objects have become the memorial to the trajectory of one’s own life, allowing us, without a doubt, to construct a human archive.”

Tracing the nostalgia of Chen Yifei is like looking through history, his five definitive themes are phases of how successfully he had adapted to his creative elements, and his reactions to his surroundings and psychology.

Reconfiguring the Maoist syndrome; late sixties to seventies

As the prevalence of the Great Cultural Revolution crept into the lives of the Chinese people, Maoism had a significant influence on Chen’s early works. Honoured with the title of Revolutionary Socialist Artist, Chen spent a decade turning out portraits of Chairman Mao. When, rarely, he was allowed to vary his subject from the Great Helmsman, he was set to painting scenes from revolutionary history: epic canvases with titles like The Seizing of the Presidential Palace (1971), hung in great halls around China.

In 1972, Shanghai authorities commissioned a group of young artists, including Chen Yifei, to create paintings based on the Yellow River Cantata, a piece of music written by composer Xian Xinhai and poet Guang Weiran in 1938. During the Cultural Revolution, pianist Yin Chengzong had adapted the original music into a piano concerto, which earned praise from Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. The title of Chen Yifei’s masterpiece, Eulogy of the Yellow River, is drawn from the lyrics of the original music. At that time, Chen was only 25 years old and already head of the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Studio.

The construction of the piece focused on areas of accumulated paint and expressive brushwork. The soldier’s extended leg and the cliff on which he stands are bathed in light. Palate knife and brush are used simultaneously, and the colour is thickly applied, carving a strong and dazzling image. The bright colour had a resplendent and gilded quality. These features were the embodiment of Chen’s perfection and of his rigorous Soviet painting education.

At the same time, Chen Yifei succeeded at intelligently absorbing and transforming these styles, evidenced in every element of the masterpiece. When this work was first revealed to the public at the 1977 United Armies Fine Arts Exhibition, the strong technique, composition and colour made a strong impact on the fine arts world, cementing his position in Chinese art history.

After the death of Chairman Mao and the remission of the Cultural Revolution, Chen Yifei began to break away from the uncritical glorification of historical events. His painting Looking at History from My Space, painted in 1979, depicts the specific events of the 1910s and 1920s in China, but portrays the artist’s attempt to separate himself from the torrent of events, to introspect about where he stands.

A water village like no other; early eighties

In 1980, at the age of 34, Chen Yifei relinquished his position and went to Hunter College in New York City with USD38 in his pocket to study art. The centre of contemporary art, the school of realism was practically ignored. Joining the ranks of other pioneering Chinese artists who travelled to the West where he met his avant-garde compatriots such as Ai Weiwei, he had the ability and self-confidence to defy the odds. He painted elegant American and Chinese musicians as well as the lush countryside scenery of the Yangtse River. In 1983, his first solo exhibition at New York’s Hammer Galleries was sensational. His success drove a clear message to the New York art arena: classical realism was resurging.

However, he did not go to New York to take on the art establishment. He merely needed the freedom to develop his personal creative aspirations unhindered. He says of his first encounter with the New York art scene: “Once I had gained confidence to walk past uniformed commissioners at the doors of galleries, I was elated by the freedom to look at art.” There is a visible transformation from his “official” historical work in china to his personal choice of themes and styles in America. In the former, the human figures are interchangeable and there is no personal attachment to them. In the latter, each individual is unique and the painting radiates a release of emotions.

In the summer of 1982, Chen decided to travel to Europe, the birthplace of Western oil painting, during which he saw western masterpieces at close distance, which allowed him to deepen his understanding of Western oil painting and strengthened his painting skills and technique. In the autumn of the same year, Chen returned to China to the waterside villages (Shui Xiang) of Jiangnan in search for artistic inspiration. With their unique ambience, the tranquil waterside villages of Jiangnan have since ancient times earned itself the reputation as "Venice of the East"; they have also served as a wellspring of inspiration for poets and artists throughout Chinese history. For Chen, these villages were filled with memories of his youth. Chen's love for his motherland was only intensified with his time living abroad; he then translated his own memories, emotions, and patriotic sentiments into his own artistic creativity.

In 1984, he completed an oil painting themed with Twin Bridges (or Shuangqiao) of Zhouzhuang and named it Hometown in Memory. Afterwards, together with other 37 paintings, it was exhibited in Gallery of Hamer Armand, who was the president of Occidental Petroleum Corporation in New York. It had created a stir in the audience, because the masterpieces was created in manners of western oil painting style and Chinese traditional water-ink painting techniques – the entire paintings highlights the dream-like and fabulous views of classical bridges and floating streams in traditional Suzhou as well as the countryside idyllic scenery of Jiangnan area in China. A commentary named Boldly Challenging Western Fashion was issued on Art News, an authoritative journal in the States. It specially addressed the art achievement that Chen Yifei made. In November 1984, before Hamer Armand visited China, he bought this painting at a high price in order to present it to Deng Xiaoping as a gift. The following year, the same painting was also printed on first day stamp covers issued by the United Nations offices. Since then, he had indirectly introduced Zhouzhuang to the rest of the world, opening it up to a steady stream of tourists and art students hoping to be the next Chen Yifei.

Music and poetry in art; late eighties to early nineties

“The Great River eastward flows/ with its waves are gove all those/ Gallant heroes of bygone years… “ Chen Yifei’s “music series” are as bold and unconstrainted as Su Shi’s poem. While Luo Zhongli and He Duoling’s painting in the 1990’s had summarized their “scar” period – and omen of farewell – Chen Yifei had delivered the inner world of Chinese people in their art exploration by western painting techniques.

Sharing the passion for classical music with his first wife, while listening to Western composers such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Bach, he was inspired during the 1980s to create a series of paintings featuring classical musicians. Most of the works in the series feature female musicians performing in duets or as soloists on the violin, piano, clarinet, or French horn.

A fine representation of his music series is String Quartet, a large-scale oil painting, which Chen Yifei chose as a backdrop for a memorable photograph. String Quartet conveys the unity of thought and feeling among four female quartet musicians totally absorbed in the world of their music. His highly developed technique presents their thick tresses, smooth white skin, and expressions of rapt concentration with a vivid realism that brings them almost close enough to touch. His finely detailed modelling gives these figures a strong sculptural feel, and his soft lines and meticulously organized composition create visual harmony as our eyes move across multiple images of hands meeting bows and instruments. Chen's skilful handling of light also creates a natural focus on the player's faces and imparts an atmosphere of austere and refined beauty to the work.

In addition to being a work of striking surface realism, String Quartet also projects deep inner feeling in a sharply focused work that captures both physical gesture and underlying spirit. Chen makes a bold choice in selecting black for his background. The performers wearing formal black stage dresses, seem to melt into its mild glow in a way that once again highlights the outlines of their faces, their expressions, and the elegant lines of their arms. At the same time, it sets them at one remove from any sense of a man-made interior space, symbolizing the idea that this kind of beauty and harmony possesses a timeless, everlasting quality of its own. Chen delicately applies thick layers of oil and polish subtly for a frosted effect, transporting the viewer into his deeply romantic and poetic world of music and beauty. Chen Yifei's paintings of musicians express his search for the underlying relationships between things and his exploration of the connection between music and painting. The series reflect his concern with a pursuit of beauty, and the ability to embrace the aesthetic appearances of different cultures. Regardless of time and era, one's life experience of the appreciation of beauty always brings greater understanding of one's self.

At the heart of unspoilt Tibet - late eighties to nineties

In 1988, Chen Yifei was touring northern Tibet and southern Gansu, where he developed an affinity with Tibet’s mysterious social customs inspiring him to work on a series of Tibet-themed oil paintings in the next decade. Compared with the peaceful and amiable feeling of the water villages in Jiangnan, the coarse lifestyle in Tibet perfectly complemented Chen's further artistic development. In 1990, Chen began to paint his Tibet series.

The majority of works from Chen Yifei’s Tibet series are distinguished by a raw and unrestrained painting style to highlight the rugged conditions of Tibetan life. Dramatic colours are also deployed with the same intent. Depicted from an elevated and a wide-angle perspective, the protagonists in Tibetans on Plateau appear slightly distorted in shape. Their standing postures are unrefined, their hand gestures are ambivalent and their expressions are muted. Favouring an approach of realism, the painter delineated with considerable accuracy the tanned complexion, coarseness and straightforward simplicity of Tibetans. After its completion, Tibetans on Plateau was featured in several international art exhibitions and publications to become one of Chen Yifei’s most paramount and best-loved works.

He carried on with the delicate handling of light which he used in the water villages series as seen in Leaving the Temple and further enriches the painting with the use of gold, tangerine, and brown colour which symbolizes the mystery and history of the highland, embodied in the landmark of Tibet depicted. Not to overwhelm viewer's visual experience of the overall imagery, Chen renders the architecture of the temple aptly without excessive depiction of minute details. Instead, the artist uses raw brushstrokes to depict the ground, while he employs delicate brushstrokes on the architecture. Encapsulating the essence and posture of the figure wearing Tibetan costume whom just passes by the temple, Chen captures a particular moment onto the canvas as if it is suspended from a movie scene.

Romancing old Shanghai; late nineties

Chen Yifei’s debut into film in 1993 was an experimental art film called Old Dreams of Shanghai (Haishang Jiumeng ????). Evening Liaison is his first feature film. It was commercially successful at the box office with ?2.6 million earned in just ten days, and was well received in film circles. Evening Liaison (1995), together with Old Dreams of Shanghai (1993) and Flee to Shanghai (Taowang Shanghai ????; 1999), a documentary about European Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai before 1949, are all set in Republican-era Shanghai and form Chen Yifei‘s ?Shanghai Trilogy.

From the cobbled alley under the cold moonlight to the wooden attic in the golden sunshine at dusk; from the extravagant ballroom in Heping fandian ???? (Peace Hotel, also known to westerners as Cathay Hotel) to the simple wonton kiosk at the street corner, from the public bath where people enjoy massage and pedicure to the living room of ordinary people where women are playing mahjong, Chen gradually shows the spectator a series of scrolling pictures of society in 1930s Shanghai, a fluid and vivid portrayal of the everyday life of common people at that time. Every scene in the film is like an oil painting with perfect colour, perspective, and composition. In fact, Chen does draw every scene for the cast and crew before shooting. For him, whether it is a painting or a film, the most important thing is the atmosphere.

Since capturing art in filmic representation, Chen‘s artistic attention turned to women dressed in traditional dresses and the leisurely or extravagant life of Shanghai citizens during the Republican era. Rather than masculine men in the battlefield, his protagonists are feminine women who stay at home or linger in a dance hall.  In fact, similar scenes and imagery echoes through his films.

In Chen‘s painting titled Old Dreams of Shanghai – The Golden Age (Shanghai jiumeng zhi huangjin suiyue ?????????) 1993, four women dressed in cheongsam are sitting around a table, playing mahjong, and a man is sitting next to one of them, seemingly showing her how to play it. As its title suggests, the past represented by this kind of lifestyle is the heyday of Shanghai; and it also coincides with the temporal setting of Evening Liaison -1932, the middle of the so-called “huangjin shinian” ???? (Golden Decade: 1927-1937) in Republican history.

Those jiangnan shinü ???? (classical women of south Yangtze River), beautiful and elegant, are leisurely sitting or standing in an indolent atmosphere. They might be wives and concubines sharing rumors and whispers, courtesans playing music, or misses and maidservants praying under the moon. They are insignificant women on the margins of the grand narrative of history, yet representing the refined, cultivated and cozy past, a lifestyle that is free of fire (revolution) and blood (heroism/sacrifice), and an aesthetics that has been suppressed and lost in the revolutionary discourse in the Mao era.

Besides scenes and characters, there is also an affinity between Chen‘s paintings and Evening Liaison in terms of colour. Different from the predominant colour in his early works in the Mao and early post-Mao era, Chen uses various colours on a black background to display the elegant life and beautiful appearance of women in the Republican period. Pale-yellow and dull-red, both warm-toned colours are the two most frequently used colours. Evening Liaison shares the same preference to colour. Except for scenes that are shot under a blue light to indicate moonlight, most scenes are shot under the soft sunshine at dawn or dusk, or the golden light of pendant lamp in a dance hall, or the dim light of indoor candles or oil lamps. As such, every scene (through soft diffuser) is more like a faded antique picture rather than a newly taken photo.

In an interview by Time magazine, Chen admits that when he returned to China from America, he found that “there were one billion people living without any real sense of lifestyle,” and he began to have a dream ”to bring aesthetics to Chinese society.” This aesthetics is not only embodied in the quiet life of those classical jiangnan shinü, but also in the modern life of wanton social butterflies and common citizens in old Shanghai.

Chen‘s nostalgia for old Shanghai is not an isolated phenomenon: ”Shanghai nostalgia” was a prominent cultural trend in the 1990s. Old Shanghai, the semi-colonial Shanghai of the Republican period, the world-famous “Paris of the East” and “Paradise for Adventurers” constitutes an irresistible enchantment, and has rekindled new collective memories suppressed by Mao-era representations. As a cultural fashion and mode of historical imagination/reconstruction in post-socialist PRC, “Shanghai nostalgia” is an over determined phenomenon. The intertwined historical, social, economic and cultural factors behind this nostalgia help us to understand Chen‘s films and representation of traipsed beauties.

If we say that Chen‘s early paintings present the grand narrative of revolutionary ideology in the Mao era, then his late paintings and films in the post-Mao era seemingly suggest an alternative narrative of the past, and are concerned more with the individual and fate than the brutality of history or shifting of political power. On the one hand, protagonists in Chen‘s film and late paintings are not determined and fearless revolutionaries devoted to the nation and people. Rather, they are sentimental even selfish common people drifting through historical upheavals. On the other hand, compared with the uniform and humdrum lifestyle in the Mao era, they enjoy freer and more colourful modern lives.


Selected Exhibitions

2009          Chen Yifei: Paintings and Works on Paper - Marlborough London, London(England)

2008          Brush/Clay/Wood: The Nancy & Ed Rosenthal Collection of Chinese Art - TaftMuseum of Art, Cincinnati, OH

2007          Chen Yifei - Marlborough Monaco, Monaco

198         3 A Tribute to Chen Yifei - Marlborough New York, New York City, NY

2006          Summer Exhibition, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London, England

1983 Fiction@Love, MOCA Shanghai, Shanghai, China

2005          Chen Yifei (1946-2005), Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd, London, England (solo)

1983 Landscape - Cityscape - Marlborough New York, New York City, NY

1983 Chen Yifei (1946-2005), Marlborough Galerie AG, Zurich (solo)

2003          Ouevres Récentes, Marlborough Monte-Carlo, Monaco (solo)

2001          Initial Image, Yibo Gallery, Shanghai, China

1999          New Works, Marlborough Gallery, New York, NY (solo)

1997          Paintings of Tibet, Pavilion of the People's Republic of China, XLVII Venice Biennale (solo)

198         3 Chen Yifei, Première Exposition en France, Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence,France (solo)

1996 – 1997 First London Exhibition, Marlborough Fine Art, London, England (solo)

1996 – 1997 The Homecoming of Chen Yifei, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China; The

198         3 China National Museum of Fine Arts, Beijing, China (solo, retrospective)

1990          Recent Paintings, Seibu Museum, Tokyo, Japan (solo)

19         83 Hammer Gallery, New York, NY (solo)

1988          Hammer Gallery, New York, NY (solo)

1986          Hammer Gallery, New York, NY (solo)

1983          New England Centre for Contemporary Art, USA (solo)

1         983 Hammer Gallery, New York, NY (solo)

1982          New England Centre for Contemporary Art, USA (solo)

1981          New England Centre for Contemporary Art, USA (solo)

1980          New England Centre for Contemporary Art, USA (solo)

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