The Remembrance of the Golden Age
Two Beauties by Chen Yifei in the 1990s
In 1980, Chen Yifei travelled to the United States, where he spent more than a decade immersed in study. By the time he returned to China in 1993, he had achieved the status of a great master, both in the level of his artistic skill and the depth of his thinking. Pledging himself to the slogan of "Great Art, Great Vision," he initiated a movement intended to heighten the overall aesthetic consciousness of society. As his wife Song Meiying, also an artist, recalls: "After returning to Shanghai, he began contemplating two plans related to painting. One was to take a trip to Tibet. The other was to paint a new series for which he had already chosen a title: Old Dream on the Sea. He wanted to paint the energy of old Shanghai." Morning Prayer, which graces the cover of this season's evening auction, is a representative work from Tibet, the Chen Yifei series with the greatest academic value. Today, Two Beauties (Lot 577), the work with the highest estimated price, goes on auction. This painting is a representative work from Old Dream on the Sea, the series through which Chen Yifei sought to recreate the image of Chinese people.
A Representative Series of Romantic Realism
Early in his American period, Art News and the New York Times described Chen Yifei's style as "romantic realism." "Realism" here indicates the artist's rigorous background in plastic arts; "romantic" describes his construction and emphasis of atmosphere, which facilitates the subjective creative perspective conveyed by his lifelike tableaus. Chen took this romanticism a step further in Old Dream on the Sea. The women in his painting are intended to resonate with his audience's interest in classical China, but he takes an artistic approach rather than engaging in overzealous historical pedantry. He generally clothes his subjects in exquisite traditional Chinese attire, the design of which is rich in individual character; as for the innate disposition of his models, he is primarily concerned with whether their eyes, posture, and body language can evoke a mood idealized by nostalgia.
Two Beauties, a dual portrait, does not depict any real historical personages, but rather inspires spontaneous wistfulness for the China of yore. In particular, it calls to mind the pairs of beautiful maidens who recur throughout traditional Chinese fiction and opera: two girls of equal charm and grace whose temperaments do not quite match. The girl on the left, clothed in burgundy, appears respectful and submissive, meeting the eyes of the viewer with a gentle gaze, whereas the girl on the right, clothed in red, exudes intelligence and confidence as she thoughtfully gazes into the distance. The juxtaposition highlights the characteristics of their personalities.
The Dual Significance of the Round Fan
Chen Yifei attached a great deal of importance to the placement and symbolic meaning of props in his portraits. In Two Beauties, the round fans in the painting are more than just a skilful nod to the historic Chinese tradition of fan-painting. The two girls' different ways of holding their fans apparently draw on the language of fans in Victorian etiquette. In the 19th century, fans were an indispensable tool for communication for upper-class women. By wielding their fans in different ways, they could express themselves with tact. This common practice was often reflected in European classical oil painting. Chen Yifei's use of fans in this painting perfectly matches the veiled nobility of the classical beauties and expresses their inner worlds, delightfully interweaving Chinese and Western culture.
The Measured Use of the Cinematic Language
Chen Yifei's artistic revolution in the 1990s was manifest in multiple realms. In addition to oil painting, he directed multiple films, the first of which, Old Dream on the Sea, shares the name of his series of paintings. His 1995 film Evening Liaison was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Best Cinematography prize. Although Two Beauties is a painting of classical maidens, it does not feel outdated; rather, it imparts a fashionable sense of nostalgia. When viewed next to the film Old Dream on the Sea, a subtle sepia tint to the painting becomes noticeable. This effect was no doubt inspired by the use of filters in film photography to suggest recollection. It brings a note of idealism and romanticism to the painting's realism, imparting to audiences in today's fast-paced and restless society a sense of spiritual comfort.