Yan Pei-Ming, In the name of the father
Visit-conference by Mael Bellec, chief curator of the Chinese arts department of the Cernuschi museum, of the exhibition at the Unterlinden museum in Colmar.
While the exhibitions devoted to Yan Pei-Ming are generally thematic, the Unterlinden museum has organized a retrospective which provides an overview of the artist's entire career.
Born in 1960, in Shanghai, in a working-class family, Yan Pei-Ming grew up in the atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Very young, he began to practice drawing and painting and, between 1972 and 1976, his talent was noticed and he was asked to make Maoist paintings.
The major interest of the exhibition is to show some early works, executed in a figurative, academic style influenced by Soviet art. A portrait, The artist's grandmother, executed in 1976, in charcoal, was refused in the 2000s by the curator of an exhibition in Shanghai, on the pretext that it was part of the cult of personality. A few self-portraits bear witness to Yan Pei-Ming's talent in handling graphite, black chalk or charcoal. Having been refused admission to the Shanghai School of Applied Arts in 1979, he decided to leave China and continue his studies in France. Knowing only Western art and Courbet and the Impressionists, he will be marked by his first visit to the Center Pompidou. Admitted in 1981 to the School of Fine Arts in Dijon, he graduated in 1986. His Self-portraits of 1982 come under expressionism or symbolism and announce what will be its style and its manner. In painting he will try out different types of vocabulary but already his palette is mainly black, red and green.
After leaving school, he stood out for his paintings representing Mao. Although active in Paris, he thus creates works that are in harmony with those produced at the same time in China, Mao then resurfacing in the works of many artists. Using Mao's image is a way of making it your own, but also of diverting it and doing something else with it. The frames are very tight, reminiscent of official portraits; if the first works show the smiling face of the Grand Helmsman, thereafter, Yan Pei-Ming will transpose different expressions on the face by varying the techniques. An integral part of the artist's identity, Mao is not only a political figure but also a father figure and Yan Pei-Ming will continue to paint portraits until 2008. A triptych depicting three large faces, Father, Unknown, Mao (1994) clearly shows the connection. a Mao portrait, from 1990, perfectly illustrates the personal style of the artist who was forced to use only a large brush 20 cm wide and still manages to give his paintings a wide variety of effects. Mao Zedong's remains (2002) takes up the theme of death which is omnipresent in Yan Pei-Ming's work. The large series of portraits of Mao is dedicated to a dead man and, although missing, who remains very present in our memories.
The image of the father is one of the most important and recurring subjects in the painter's work. Very close to his family, as soon as he can make a living from his painting, he will bring his parents to France and settle them near him. The relationship he has with his father seems complicated. He has the impression that he has never really known this taciturn man who speaks little. All the portraits will decline the image of his father under different aspects and the titles of the paintings attribute all kinds of qualities or defects to him. However, it is less about making a real portrait than exploring his relationship with his father. In this game of titles of works we go from the singular to the general and, from the individuality of the character, he slides towards the general human type. While in the classical tradition, however important for Yan Pei-Ming, we tried to have access to the interiority of the model by the representation of the physical aspect, when we put all the portraits of the artist's father next to each other. side by side we do not know who the man was. Through these many representations, Yan Pei-Ming also seems to want his father to speak and give him different personalities.
The most insightful man, father of the artist (1996), like many other portraits, uses the technique of broad brushstrokes and uses shades of red while The most respectable man, father of the artist (1996) is available in shades of black and gray.
It should be noted that Yan Pei-Ming is part of the movement of the return to painting after the years when it was discredited in contemporary art with the conceptual art, the happening or the performance of the 60s and 70s. . Two large paintings, YZT funeral et Funeral flowers (2003) were painted shortly after the father's death. In shades of white (the color of mourning in China) and gray, the first hints at the shape of the deceased in his shroud while, in the second, only the wreaths of flowers remain.
Yan Pei-Ming is a prolific artist but at the same time someone who takes a long time to produce his works.
Landscape is an extremely present subject in Yan Pei-Ming's work. His landscapes, which all have the same title, the “International Landscape”, are rarely identifiable. International landscape, crime scene, birthplace of the artist's father (1996) represents a tree by a lake, inviting meditation in the pure Chinese tradition, but the dark monochrome, the broad brushstrokes and the drips create a rather scary atmosphere, reinforced by the subtitle. The artist forces the viewer to ask questions, to formulate hypotheses and to become an actor in the work.
One room is dedicated to the Buddhist theme because Yan Pei-Ming's family is religious and he lived in his youth in two disused temples. During the Cultural Revolution, religious performances were prohibited and he performed a number of them for members of his family. From 1999, the figure of the Buddha will reappear in his work, varying the framing and poses. Buddha's warrior n-3 ((2002) is a representation of the face of a Dvārapāla (temple guardian). The treatment with broad brushstrokes further increases the caricature of the sculpture. Unseen Buddha (2000) expresses softness by a less "aggressive" treatment of the pictorial layer. The artist was working from photos and this face evokes a Japanese Buddha.
Here, too, we find the serial dimension. The performances of the Buddhas were very repetitive, but the artist will use different lighting and framing to individualize them. Yan Pei-Ming often quotes the five hundred series arhats (disciples of the Buddha) and he parallels his way of creating characters who are always the same but always different like the five hundred arhats which are all individualized. Red buddha (2005) represents a classical bodhisattva statue but the technique is interesting. Here, the work of the material is bubbling, by touches and impasto to "sculpt", give the effects of light and is part of a Western pictorial technique derived from Impressionism.
Selfportrait at Four ages. 2006. Oil on canvas. 250 X 250 cm (each canvas). Private collection.
While the self-portrait had been a subject widely used since his youth, he stopped producing it from 1983 until 1999. After visiting the exhibition “Rembrandt by himselfAt the National Gallery in London, he was struck by the sixty or so portraits made over the course of a lifetime and returned to the subject. His taste for large format is induced by his technique of large brushstrokes, embossing and impasto. His series of self-portraits are both variations of expressions but also some are treated as vanities. Self-portrait at four ages (2006) represents him four times: young, adult, on his deathbed and in the state of a skull. In this way, he tames the passing time and the notion of finitude. It's fair to say that these self-portraits usually exude an impression of sadness caused by the dark tones and facial expressions.
Shanghai at night (2003) is part of the series of landscapes but is perfectly identifiable with the Bund in the foreground and the modern buildings suggested in the background of the composition. Likewise, International Landscape, Shanghai (2004) represents the urban panorama of Pudong.
If Yan Pei-Ming is part of the Western pictorial tradition, intellectually he remains deeply Chinese and the notion of filial piety is anchored in him. His mother appears for the first time, in 2014, on a diptych representing her playing cards while he is prostrate on her knees, in an attitude which is reminiscent of the custom in imperial China. My mother (2018) was produced the year of his disappearance and Yan Pei-Ming will pay tribute to him with many monumental portraits afterwards.
Name of a dog / A perfect day (2012) is a triptych representing the artist in three totally Christ positions that evoke the Crucifixion. As in all of his work, references to religious iconography are extremely present in these self-portraits.
Pandemic (2020) is a very large painting created especially for this exhibition. Yan Pei-Ming is an artist who is ideal for exhibiting in a museum, because he will seek to find echoes of works in the collections. Pandemic is a response to the Isenheim altarpiece. This altarpiece had been commissioned by the congregation of the Antonines who looked after the patients of the ergot of rye (fire of Saint-Antoine). It is interesting to see how the artist, from a few preparatory sketches, changes the composition as he paints, which can be followed because the museum has documented the different stages. The work is in the news with the HLM buildings which occupy the right responding to Saint-Pierre de Rome, on the left. In this dark atmosphere, figures bury the corpses in the background while in the foreground a meditative figure, bending over, contemplates some body bags. Yan Pei-Ming often refers to Courbet and, here, one can think that it is a reinterpretation of A funeral at Ornans that he copied a lot.
Yan Pei-Ming is totally in the pictorial tradition of history painting. It was said that she died at the end of the 19thrd century but the artist tries to reconnect with this great tradition and find a style that allows him to deal with major subjects, to represent events and to echo and relate to the entire history of painting.
As said previously about his exhibition in Dijon, Yan Pei-Ming is a committed painter, a painter of History but also a man who continues to fight.