- Wang Yidong
- The Letter
- oil on canvas
- 100 by 150 cm.; 39 3/8 by 59 in.
Wang Yidong, China Realism Five Years Complete Works: China Realism · Wang Yidong, Jilin Fine Arts Press, Changchun, 2008, pp. 86-87
“I’ve walked across bridges in many different places. I’ve seen many clouds. I’ve tasted many types of alcohol. But I’ve only loved one person of the right age.”
- Shen Congwen
True love is an eternal artistic subject. Enjoying The Letter by Wang Yidong feels similar to reading the letters written by the famous writer Shen Congwen to his wife, beautifully suave and touching. As a leading figure in Chinese realist painting, Wang Yidong is good at recording the happiest times for young girls with his aesthetic brushwork. He has combined a strong attachment to his hometown with a youthful relationship and happy marriage. His attainments come not only from Renaissance and neo-classical techniques, but also from his thorough understanding of Chinese art and folk elements. He cut a new path with his unique personal style and ethnic culture in realist painting, which has been dominated by the West for hundreds of years.
Classic Composition to Depict Love
Wang Yidong was fascinated by realist painting since childhood. He mastered painting to perfection through talent and hard work. What has made him even better, building on this foundation, is his narrative ability. The meeting point of the two is the clue to appreciating The Letter. Wang Yidong studied at the Shandong Art School from the age of 16, and then went to the China Central Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Oklahoma, which gave him a solid academic foundation. In Western art history, the five hundred years from the Renaissance in the 14th century to the neo-classicism of the 19th century was the most properous time for realism. The Letter reflects the essence of this long history. In the painting, the young girl leaning towards the red bed with her hand on the pillow was a fusion of a series of classic works. From Venus at Her Mirror by Velasquez to Madame Recamier by David, Western masters presented female figures in many different poses and expressions. They are mysterious, seductive, elegant, cold or arrogant, but they all pull on the heart-strings. However, the girl in The Letter is not similar to them. She is young and ignorant, with no makeup but a smile and innocent pure eyes. She was too exquisitely designed to come from the world of man. Her position, directly facing the viewer shows her defenceless body language. If realism had tenses, Wang Yidong was definitely not expressing the present or future tense. He was trying to recall the purest longing and memory of love deep in the viewers’ mind.
Portraits like The Letter normally adopt a diagonal composition to avoid the painting being half figure and half background. Western painters would normally paint in supporting figures like Cupid in Venus at Her Mirror or the maid in Olympia to balance the painting. But Wang Yidong did not paint a supporting figure. He painted a ball of silk strips hanging from above, showing flexibility, which not only balanced the painting, but is also deeply meaningful in terms of narration and space creation.
Chiaroscuro and Sfumato Flawless Realist Techniques
Wang Yidong’s realist techniques in Letter are sophisticated but look simple. Da Vinci and Raphael are two symbols of the Rennaisance. They are the earliest founders of chiaroscuro and sfumato. Chiaroscuro stresses contrast under light, and sfumato emphasises a soft colour transition. The two techniques complemented by the sketching ability of the painter made up the three elements of realist paintings. When Da Vinci used sfumato, in order to guarantee a colour gradation, he used mink fur brushes for the finest details, and after adding colour he rubbed it in gently with his fingers. In Letter, Wang Yidong mainly used sfumato supplemented by chiaroscuro, in order to highlight the tenderness of the young girl and to convey the subject appropriately. The girl’s clothes, the sheet under her and the quilt are all red, but it is not harsh or overly conspicious to the viewer’s eye. This is because Wang has an excellent sense of colour using many layers of red. If you look closely, you will see that every slight wrinkle on the girl’s clothes from the collar to the trousers is a different colour. The ability to distinguish, tone and tint in such detail came from years of practice and Wang’s acute senses. The sfumato technique on the girl’s face and hands is even more astonishing. Even examined closely, you can still sense the texture of the smooth and soft skin. She has been depicted so accurately that even the sudden expression of looking up while reading a letter has been captured. This is an surpassed demonstration of Wang’s skills in photorealism.
Meanwhile, the silk ball on the other side of the painting focuses on colour contrast. The background is slightly shadowed under the light. The contrast of light and shadow is designed to separate the foreground and background to create a three-dimentional visual effect. Western realist masters often put scenery behind their characters in their sfumato works. They normally used chiaroscuro for a dark background, as in The Letter. The way Wang Yidong used colours in this work truly challenged the rules of classic realism, but with his high level of skill and sophisticated composition, he achieved what he had set out to do.
Midas Touch: Extraordinary Narrative Ability
The beauty of the portrait is only the first layer of The Letter. The story Wang hid behind the portrait leaves the viewer with a long aftertaste and a lingering note. Love is an eternal theme in art, but it has never been easy for love-themed works to get into galleries. In China, love is the most reserved emotion. A direct expression of it would result in stereotype. Those that are the best at expressing love must be skilled at symbolism and metaphor, and working through intermediaries to convey a message that words cannot describe. In the development of Western painting, narration was also a challenge that every painter faced in becoming a master. From Da Vinci to Rembrandt, each painter was an excellent story teller. The reason why Wang Yidong can be ranked ahead of many Chinese realist painters is that he is good at using symbols in the background and accurate expression through a subject’s body language. He is able to deliver things beyond words on a canvas. Viewers can imagine, explore and interpret while appreciating his work.
The facial expression of the girl in The Letter is not static. She is caught looking up while reading a letter. It is like a freeze frame, encouraging viewers to guess what happened before and afterwards. Letters are personal items. A woman’s private letter is even more thought provoking. In works by the Dutch realist master Vermeer, who focused on presenting the daily lives of women, there are many examples of women writing and reading letters. There are words of the letter that the girl in the painting is reading. The envelope in the other corner reveals the origin of the letter – it was sent from Penglai to Cangshan county. Penglai is on the north coast of the Shandong peninsula, and Cangshan county is at the southern tip of the province. In an age when transport was not so developed, it was not at all easy to meet up. The girl is looking down reading the letter and looking up at a person. Her shy smile cannot disguise her joy. When the viewer’s eyes meet hers, they immediately get into character and become part of the painting. As to who this character is, it goes without saying.
Wang’s ingenious narration is not only reflected by explaining the plot and engaging viewers through the letter, but also by fully coordinating all elements of the work. The decorative silk ball would only be seen as a prop that creates a three-dimentional effect without taking into consideration the painting’s story. This rationalises the appearance of the ball. A red silk ball is a symbol of love and marriage, and the room the girl is in is none other than her boudoir. The painter has led viewers to the most private space in the woman’s life and psychology. However, the painting is not at all vulgar. It is clear that the focus of the work is not only the figure in the painting, but also the character that viewers play when they become part of the painting, keeping the girl kind, innocent and happy.
Moving Towards Elegance: From Folk Customs to the Essence of a People
Wang Yidong became a first-class realist painter, with his superb ability in modelling and narration. In terms of promoting Chinese realism in the world, he brought Chinese elements into painting. In contrast with traditional artists or even the first and second generations of Chinese oil painters, Wang Yidong grew up in the countryside, which gave him a deep understanding of and passion for folk art and culture. Although Wang went to the U.S. with his peers Ai Xuan and Wang Huaiqing in the 1980s, he still considered his homeland the origin of his creativity. Compared with Chen Yifei, who is ten years older than Wang, and his pursuit of an old town style and dreams of the flourishing times of old, Wang Yidong’s rural-style works focus more on the appearances of different times and his personal experience. This reflects the periodical characteristics of Chinese realism. From a macro perspective, rural subjects have made significant progress in China over the past decade, across all types of media. In literature, there was Red Sorghum Clan by the Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan. In the film industry, there were Hibiscus Town by Xie Jin, Yellow Earth by Chen Kaige, Good Men along the Three Gorges by Jia Zhangke, and the recent work by Zhang Yimou Under the Hawthorn Tree, which delved into innocent true love in the same period as The Letter.
The red outfit the girl in The Letter is wearing is festive clothing from the Shandong countryside. The peony and phoenix patterns on the bedding symbolise fortune and luck. The red silk stripe ball is also a traditional symbol of marriage. The suspense of the painting – the envelope is addressed to Cangshan County, which is in the painter’s hometown of Linyi. High culture in China relies on folk vitality. The majority of pieces in the Book of Songs and the Yuefu Songs of the Han Dynasty were originally folk songs. The southern Tang emperor Li Yu turned the poems of musicians into poems for literati. The May Fourth Movement made vernacular Chinese into a proper written language. Wang Yidong took Shandong folk customs as the centre pieces of his oil paintings. Rural elements from a corner of the East moved into the most stern form of Western art. Without his intelligence and skills, it would have been impossible to achieve such a big cultural leap.
As well as folk elements, Wang Yidong also focussed on bringing in elements from traditional Chinese painting. He once said that red and black were the most important colours in his paintings. Red is a symbol of luck in Chinese tradition. He used black to explore the possibility of using traditional inks in realist painting. In modernism, especially abstractionism, it is easier to integrate Chinese ink painting with Western art. However, the difficulty and contribution that Wang Yidong made in integrating Chinese and Western techniques into classic realism, a tradition of similar depth, should not be overlooked. In the Chinese tradition, single-coloured paintings are called ‘ink painting’ and multi-coloured paintings are called ‘red and green’, as it mainly uses these two colours. For example, in The Letter, Wang Yidong perfectly combined ‘red and green’ and ‘ink’ in realist painting. In the foreground, the figure is mainly in red supplemented by some green. Not only are the girl’s clothes and bedding red, but also her cheeks and hands. As a buffer, green is used on her socks and for the patterns on the quilt, which resonates with visual tradition and is in line with the modern ‘colour circle theory’. The contrast of red and green produces a very vivid effect. As for the ink black background, Wang distilled it from the deepest ‘burnt-out black’ in ink painting. Apart from making the bright foreground stand out, it is almost as if the background of time and space has been removed, leading viewers into an eternally beautiful scene.