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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Chen Yifei

Chen Yifei--Chinese Impressionism
Seldom do I write about Chinese artists. Mostly that's because I don't like to write about something of which I know very little, and on top of that, find culturally difficult to understand. That's especially the case with ancient Chinese art and artists. And while I may admire the delicate restraint of the Chinese watercolors and their tightly integrated calligraphy, it's not a type of art with which I can closely identify. Chen Yifei is different. In China, by the way, family names and given names are reversed (Chen is therefore what we would term his "last" name.) I can identify with Chen, if for no other reason than he is of my own generation, though about six months younger and born (1946) on the opposite side of the world. Though quite different than my own, I can identify with Chen's painting as well. Stylistically, there is very little to suggest an overt oriental look to his work. In today's painting world, that element is something of an anachronism. He didn't paint in "Chinese" any more than I paint in "American."

Reclining Nude, 1980s, Chen Yifei--the only thing Chinese is the artist.
Beauty with a Silk Fan, Chen Yifei
In Chen's case, as in my own, it is the artist's content that identifies him as to ethnicity and national origin, although I've taken to painting a few European venues as a result of my travels. The same was, in fact, the case with Chen as he studied, lived, and worked in the United States during a good part of his career. Though he also traveled and painted in Europe, Chen's "American" content seems to have been mostly of the feminine genre, of which he was reportedly quite the connoisseur. (My wife discourages that sort of thing.) Chen's American girls were often seen with musical instruments. His Chinese ladies almost never were. In 1980, Chen had been one of the first artists allowed to leave Communist China to study in the U.S. In 1983 he received a masters degree from Hunter College (NYC) and ended up spending a total of ten years making a name for himself in the art capital of the world.

Chen's China, as seen in this photo, was one of somber
reflection with a traditional Chinese color palette (top).
Now rich and famous (unlike myself), Chen returned to China in 1990 as something of an art celebrity, his strikingly colored and composed oriental beauties bringing extravagant prices (by Chinese standards) in major galleries in major art capitals, not just in the U.S., but around the world. In returning to his homeland, Chen settled upon an impressionistic style of painting centered upon nostalgic views of his native Zhejiang Province as well at Tibet. However, declaring his style to be impressionistic is not to say one would ever mistake a Chen for a Monet. Except for his ladies, Chen did not do beautiful. Where Monet often luxuriated in luxuriant color, Chen's Venetian-like waterways (he had visited Venice shortly before returning to China) are dull, somber, and quite authentic in their portrayal (compare the scene at top with the actual scene above).

Eulogy of the Yellow River, 1972, Chen Yifei
Chen's Mao
Chen Yifei was a product of China's 1960s Cultural Revolution. His formal art education came at the height of Chairman Mao's misbegotten movement. When Mao was big, Chen painted BIG Maos (right) everything from modest to the monumental. He also painted highlights of the "glorious revolution" and and episodes from China turbulent military history the Communist party wished to glorify. But even though painting for the Chinese Communist government, even before visiting the western world, Chen had absorbed its style. He is said to have been the favorite artist of Mao's wife. One might term his Eulogy of the Yellow River (above) as beautiful propaganda. His The Destruction of the Jiang (Kaishek) Family and the Wang (Jingwei) Court (below) from the 1960s has a sort of "rowdy Russian" quality to it.
The destruction of the Jiang (Kaishek) family and the Wang (Jingwei) court,
1960s, Chen Yifei

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