Making Progresses Through the Exploration of Self-portrait Painting
There is a category of paintings usually ignored in western art history, which, however, matters a lot to artists, for it is their mirror and proves their existence. It is self-portrait. For artists, painting self-portraits is in no way as simple as practicing drawing. Artists’ signatures began to appear on artworks 1,000 year ago. Since then, artists have no longer been called craftsmen but “masters” respected by people and recorded by history. Likewise, the emergence of self-portraits symbolizes undoubtedly the rising status of artists, that is, artists are no longer silent recorders but protagonists that depict their own unique personalities and life stories with their brushes. In an era without photographic techniques, such kind of self-portrayal can be achieved only by artists with their unique expertise. Those artists who earn a living by painting are much more sensitive about drawings than words. Consequently, they would rather use their privileges to record themselves of different phases than write autobiographies, faithfully depicting their inner feelings across time and space.
Most artists have no concrete answers to the profound philosophical question of how we as human beings getting to know ourselves. I think there is no exception to Chen Chengwei for the same question. Vincent Willem van Gogh once said to his brother Theo in a letter that “If one day I can paint my self-portrait well although it’s hard, then I can paint easily portraits of the other men and women in the world.” It is not easy for people to paint themselves, for no one can see themselves clearly. But self-portrait practice can help painters not only practice modeling and colors, but also probe into spiritual temperament of images and external manifestation of mental activities through self-observation. When artists are able to seize their hidden mentality through depicting themselves, they can really capture the lips curving slightly, shy light in the eyes or eyebrow with slight gloom of “the other men and women in the world”. And that might be one of the reasons that Chen Chengwei has been insisting on painting self-portraits, which is a practice as well as an observation. Artists reading the world with eyes can always inspect their hearts by means of painting and I think these artists are brave. They are pursuing their hearts bravely through painting. Maybe it is at that moment that time and mind can really fall silent to enable their brain filled with creativity to concentrate.
Chen Chengwei is just that kind of brave man, persistently painting himself all the time. No matter what various interspersing images played by this artist in the “Autobiography” series or the “Republic of China” series, they are all his constant self-explorations.
In western art history, artists went through a long time to recognize their self-images. What’s interesting is that Chen’s works show that his self-perception process is just reverse. In the art history, artists began to display their images in their works in an indirect way long time ago, and the most famous example is, of course, the reflection of the painter himself in the mirror in the painting of Velazquez’s Las Meninas. This reflection is his banter as well as recognition of his identity. Artists were no longer willing to only paint for royal families, but were proud to put their images on the easels. This half-joke tradition can be regarded as the predecessor of the self-portraits. Finally, they just directly painted for themselves, proudly telling the world that they are who they are. In 1433, Jan van Eyck wrote down “Try My Best” on the top of his self-portrait, Portrait of a Man in a Turban, and jokingly wrote down a sentence “Jan van Eyck painted me on October 21, 1433.” The art giant, Picasso, also devoted himself to the creation of his self-portraits before he died. Self-portraits finally develop into a platform for artists to display their personalities and life stories from the recognition of professional value of artists at the beginning.
Instead, as a young artist, Chen ’s early works depicted a direct self-display. It’s probably because he was born in an era when artists are very confident about their own values. Another reason, I believe, may be his fondness for Rembrandt, for the “Autobiography” series are obviously his salute to this master in the Baroque Period. Rembrandt, adept at expressing characters’ personalities and features through generalization technique, is skillful in mental description in portraits and self-portraits, and thus, his excellent technique of contrasting light and shade is honored as “depicting light with shade”. Rembrandt’ composition features are seen clearly in the “Autobiography” series, such as the use of contrasting light and shade, drama features and 3/4 profile portrait. Chen has been quite skillful in the use of light of Rembrandt-type but with great flexibility. The light only shines 3/4 of the face, manifesting inverted triangular bright area in any side of the main character’s face, which seems to divide the face into two parts while making the two sides of the face look quite different. He focuses the light on the main part and lets the rest be hidden in the background of black brown or light olive. He highlights the main part of the painting and weakens the dark part, and eliminates the secondary factors, making people feel stable, solemn and gorgeous, endowing the “Autobiography” series with a mystique of the Baroque era and lightening up the dramatic colors in plain subjects.
Rembrandt painted 61 self-portraits in his whole life. And in this series of self-portraits, we can tell Rembrandt’s unyielding character. He devoted himself to the painting of his skin, hair and texture, bravely recording his sorrow, sadness, freedom and happiness and such depictions and self-analysis were viewed as dignity in his life. The same is true with the works of Chen Chengwei. He always looks straight at the outside world inside the painting, smiling, no matter he wears a hat looking like a jester or dresses like an aristocrat. Watching his self-portraits, you can feel a strong sense of confidence that as long as he keeps on painting, his dignity will never cease.
Besides, dramatic features also play an important role in Chen’s works, especially the depiction of symbolic nature in the era of the Republic of China in the “Republic of China” series. Like the above-mentioned Velazquez, this artist put himself in interspersing in various scenes of the Republic of China, seeking himself in depression and experiencing various scenes and various lives. He perfectly combined realism with the current classical aesthetics in China and integrated his imagination into his works with his mature painting skills. Red silks and satin scattering in each work have political implications and are a metaphor of women suffering under the yoke of traditional marriage. On the other hand, what is striking and precious is that although Chen Chengwei is a young artist, we can see from the progress of his artistic expressions an increasingly complicated artistic expressions and thinking instead of pulp and plain streamlining creation due to aesthetic convergence or interests. The most prominent work that shows the growth of this artist is the depiction of Red Rose and White Rose, the masterpiece of Ms. Eileen Chang. Rich symbols are hidden in the work, depicting incisively and vividly the mentality of Zhenbao, the male protagonist in the novel. “Perhaps each man had such two women, at least two. After marrying Red Rose, as times passed, the Red became a touch of mosquito blood on the wall while the White was still a ray of moonlight in front of the bed; after marrying White Rose, the White became a grain of rice clinging to the clothes while the Red was still a cinnabar mole on the man’s heart.” In Red Rose, the man wears a red hat but cloth in white. The Red Rose is a cinnabar mole in the heart of Zhenbao, even though he is wearing white wedding suits to marry White Rose, he is still anxious to send the red rose symbolizing heart and enthusiasm to the lady in red, but this rose has already begun withering or has never been in full blossom, just like the subsequent stories in the novel, that is, when the Red Rose finally turns around and sincerely faces the relationship with Zhenbao, Zhenbao chooses to leave cowardly. And White Rose is like a sequel to the former work. In front of the red satin flowers, the couple in white look at each other without facial expression or passion. A white rose on the white bellyband is in front of the red decorative pattern symbolizing heart and passion while the man crosses his hands defensively. This, perhaps, is the traditional couple who are always courteous to each other, but there is an invisible thousand-mile barrier between them although they are standing together; however, another hand from outside the painting reaches the shoulder of the lady, implying that in the future Zhenbao will finally discover the affair between his wife and the tailor.
I believe, therefore, Chen has kept making progresses through his explorations of self-portrait painting. He has been trying to find another self in different space and time by painting.
Dr. Gao Peng
Director of Today Art Museum
Written on August 17, 2015 in Beijing