Twenty Years of Preparation: The Grand Finale of the Chinese Realist Master
Chen Yifei's monumental work of the 1990s - Morning Prayer
“It is a pure land, closest to heaven. The Tibetan people kneel and press their heads to the ground over the entire pilgrimage. This pious attitude is a maker of miracles."
The rise of Chen Yifei marks a special point in the history of New Chinese Art. Chen flew to New Yorkin the 1980s. As Art News reported at the time, he was “the first New Chinese artist studying in the U.S." This also marked a boost in artistic exchange between China and the West after the previous blockage of the 1950s. Chen's outstanding talent and assiduous work ethic have garnered his works representation on many a UN first-day cover design, and these have even been given out as gifts for Sino-American diplomats.
In the 1990s, under the theme of “Grand Sight. Grand Art,” this internationally renowned artist launched a revolutionary movement in art. In addition to directing film, starting his own fashion brand, and publishing magazines, he also began his “Tibet” series, the most difficult challenge among his oil paintings, as the final illustrious chapter of his distinguished career. The cover of this night auction, Morning Prayer, shows this legendary figure’s prominent artistic achievement.
Boldly stepping onto the roof of the world; reaching new heights in his artwork
Chen spent twenty years preparing his “Tibet” series, and in terms of art, this series stands far beyond his other works. Thanks to the economic reforms in China during the 1970s, the artist gained more freedom for artistic creation. The mysterious and beautiful Tibet had long been in his mind before going to the U.S., though. He first set foot in this holy realm upon his temporary return to China in the 1980s. He began to draw the outline of this series by culling from his personal experiences there. In the 1990s, although then in his fifties, he resolved to explore this sacred land despite the limitations of extreme weather and his own physical condition. After filming Old Dream at Sea: Personal Recollections on Chen Yifei and A Date at Dusk, he went deep into Tibet to begin his “Tibet” series.
China encompasses a vast territory with huge differences among its regional cultures. Thus, realist painters usually stay in one province to thoroughly invest their emotions and refine their skills. Unlike these other artists, Chen relied on his outstanding artistic sensitivity to explore different subjects as he grew older with experience and to present a vivid trace of his artistic contemplation. Chen waited to complete his “Tibet” series when he had reached his prime in artistic attainment, life experience, and economic condition. This decision shows how much he valued this project. That is, when viewing Morning Prayer, people should also remember that the aesthetic perspective is not the only pertinent viewpoint; the artist writes through his art, expressing his ideas about Tibet’s weather, geography, culture, religion, and ethics through his paintings.
Family and gods: fiery souls on frozen soil
Chen enjoyed a fulfilling journey in Tibet. More important than his witnessing of the landscape and culture, he felt the inner beauty of the Tibetan people, which is also a theme in Morning Prayer: On a usual morning, the normal Tibetan family gathers together as always, preparing for the coming activities.
Morning Prayer does not aim at depicting the faces of the family members. Underneath the thick layers of clothing, viewers cannot even count the exact number of people. However, this arrangement shows exactly what the artist wants to say—familial solidarity. It is due to such solidarity that vulnerable children can survive such harsh weather; the older brothers and sisters are forced to become mature so that they can take care of their siblings; and the parents, moreover, have to be tough in order to protect their offspring.
The artist chose not to employ Chinese composition for this picture, and he did not place the subjects side by side. Instead, he placed them to the left side of the canvas, leaving a blank space at the right. Retaining this circle in the work helps highlight his theme of “solidarity”—Tibet does not even look cold when seen beside this powerful emotional bond. Both the people and the landscape appear to be covered with a warm tone of reddish brown, conveying a robust life force.
The artist further illustrates familial solidarity through the painting: The morning gathering is not just a daily activity for making a cooking fire. As the lowering of their heads with a solemn expression suggests, they are together praying for safety. The weather in Tibet is extreme and unpredictable. Even if one is fully prepared, it is still hard to say that everything is in safe hands. Having done their best as humans, they can only count on the gods for protection. Seeing the scene of Morning Prayer, viewers cannot help but think of Millet’s The Angelus in which a farming couple is praying over a poor harvest at dusk. The subjects render their struggles in life as countless silent prayers. Both paintings show the artists’ sympathy for the hardworking people.
The non-stop pursuit for “strength,” “sculptural texture,” and “the sense of modernity”
Chen’s “Tibet” series quickly caught people’s attention in the art world. In 1997, the Wenhui Book Review wrote, "...His paintings tend to present the generality of things. He believes that details may push out the viewers’ feelings for the entire painting. Critics believe that his style has once again turned to the bold and majestic. Chen, however, holds that he still embodies the concepts he has always adhered to: strength, sculptural texture, and the sense of modernity.” Chen’s style couples strength with gentleness. His early works made in the theme of revolution carry a sense of heroism, filled with the boldness of the Soviet and Eastern European styles. After going to the U.S., his portraits of ladies and landscapes suddenly softened under the influence of Classicism. When people were ready to believe that this would be a permanent transformation, he returned to his masculine boldness with his “Tibet” series.
The key to these twists and turns lies in the need to deliver the messages conveyed through his works. The overall artistic style of Morning Prayer is similar to that in Chen’s early works: China began to import Soviet and Eastern European realism in the 1950s. Realism in this form pays attention to light, heavy strokes, and the sculptural texture of the subjects. Its content focuses on the common people and strong humanistic concerns. When studying in Shanghai and Beijing in his early years Chen was deeply influenced by this style.
Morning Prayer centers on the Tibetan people. With its width and length both reaching to two meters, this grand piece echoes the paintings of heroic and historic scenes that he favored in his early years. Nevertheless, Chen did not stick to the realistic style that tends to present every detail of the characters as in a photograph. Instead, he chose to express the vicissitudes of life on the plateau in straightforward alla prima. These features obviously share a common origin in the Soviet realists. The emotions, personalities, and images of the characters become even more real after they are intensified, as expressed by the “strength” and “sculptural texture” of the artist.
Challenging the Western mainstream; reviving Realism from the East
However, the masculine boldness in Morning Prayer derives not completely from Soviet oil painting. Comparing Morning Prayer with Chen’s early masterpiece, Red Flag I, one sees the two echo one another in “strength” and “sculptural texture.” Red Flag's film-like effects, on the other hand, highlight its differences from Prayer. As the artist has emphasized over and again, “A good painter does not create beauty but discovers it and presents these beautiful things to the audience.”
In addition to refining Soviet Realism, Chen also used his international perspective and experience in interrelated media to inject new elements into realist paintings. Chen was engrossed in directing films in the 1990s. Not only was he recognized by the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan and the Golden Rooster Awards in China, but he also slipped movie language into his oil paintings: In Morning Prayer, he presents the reddish-brown landscape of Tibet, the scarlet clothes of its people, and the flushed cheeks of those who live and breathe on the plateau. This red tone and hazy focus find their equivalents in the filters used in film and the soft focus and depth of photography. The strokes on the canvas, bolder than in his earlier works, are also inspired by the particles seen on highly light-sensitive film, and as such these effects become stronger in his works.
Chen's introduction of elements of photography and film to his paintings also introduced changes to realism as a whole, in addition to creating a personal artistic effect. As he himself expressed, this is his "sense of modernity." As an English art historian, Nick Wadley, said of Chen's work, ‘…and if the screen is a large canvas, "a moving painting with conversation" as he puts it, his canvas is also a very screen- like surface. Standing in front of the Tibetan paintings, it is not only their scale that brings film to mind. The life size or larger players are framed and lit in cinematic configurations: stills, moments from a sequence of actions.’
Xu Beihong introduced Realism to China in the 1920s. After thirty years of contest with modernism and another thirty years of dominance by the art academy, Chinese realism was finally capable of holding a conversation with the West and arousing huge resonance with the international scene, in part an achievement of Chen’s brilliant works. Not only do his works represent the Eastern concept of oil painting, but they also suggest the re-emergence of the Realist style, which has been challenged and marginalized since the mid-19th century. The artist was commended by the American periodical Art News in 2000 as making “a bold challenge to Western trends.” Morning Prayer can be seen as the culmination of Chen's artistic life. It is a work that will continue to grow in value and importance.