--On the Modernity of Chen Chengwei’s Oil Painting
By Jin Yingcun
The recent Republic of China series of Chen Chengwei presents a refreshing feeling to the eyes: some absurd, surreal, and unfamiliar aesthetic qualities are presented visually with still the exquisite method of classical realism. The scenes of historical fragments during the Republic Period are moved onto the canvas to integrate with some elements of conceptual photography for creating the stage effect in the style of Bertolt Brecht. It is very striking that the artist also participated in the great show of that period himself. Holding a flashlight, the painter sometimes turns into the policeman from the police station, sometimes dresses up as a noble gentleman, and sometimes shows kind of the style of a playboy. With the darkness of night as the background, the situation is controlled merely by the beam of the flashlight. Like the spotlight on the stage, the beam guides the eyes of the audiences to the beauty of mystery and creates a strong psychological tension. The scenes of the Republic of China series are generally dignified and solemn, yet the active participation of the artist adds an air of humor and jocosity to them. By challenging the visual nerves of the audiences, the artist is playing a game of the mind with us. The participation of the artist into the creation of the works is totally different from the self-portraiture in the traditional sense. Through careful reflection on the images in the pictures, the trace of the artist could be found everywhere. This brings out an interesting topic: what is the possibility of the direct presentation of the artists themselves?
纵观艺术史，不难发现诸多古典大师也已厌倦了中规中矩的自画像，和观众玩起了类似捉迷藏的新花样：追溯到文艺复兴盛期，意大利画坛巨匠拉斐尔便在其史诗巨作《雅典学院》中插入了一个耐人寻味的细节——仔细观察画面右下方处，便会发现画家本人也站在众多古希腊哲人与思想家群体中，目光直视观者，仿佛是在声明，这前无古人后无来者的思想盛宴，我拉斐尔就算穿越过去也不能缺席啊！北方文艺复兴巨擎扬·凡·艾克（Jan van Eyck）更是奇思妙想，在《阿尔诺菲尔婚礼》一画中，为了证明自己作为画家兼证婚人的形象，他将自己画在了房间墙壁上一面硬币尺寸大小的镜子中，并在显眼的位置写上拉丁文“Johannes de eyck fuit hic”，意即扬·凡·代克在场。而巴洛克时期西班牙宫廷画家委拉兹凯支，则在《宫娥》（Las Meninas）一作中将自己正在画国王和王后的形象如实记录下来，在画与被画、看与被看之间实现了微妙的转化……
After taking a panoramic view of the history of art, it can be easily found that many classical masters were tired of the ordinary self-portraiture, so they played the new tricks of hide and seek with the audiences.Tracing back to the prime time of the Renaissance, Raphael, the great Italian master of painting, added a thought-provoking detail into his epic masterpiece School of Athens. It can be found that the artist is also standing among the ancient Greek philosophers and thinkers after careful observation of the lower right corner of the work. He is looking directly into the eyes of the audiences as if he is making a statement that I, Raphael, should travel through the history to participate in the unprecedented gathering of the great minds. Jan van Eyck, the great master of northern Europe during the Renaissance, made a more imaginative move. In order to prove that he is the painter who witnessed the marriage, he put his self-portraiture into a mirror of the size of a coin on the wall in the room in the picture and added the note “Johannes de eyck fuit hic” in Latin at a prominent place which means “in the presence of Jan van Eyck”. Diego Velázquez, the Spanish court painter in the Baroque period, recorded the scene that he is painting the King and the Queen in the work Las Meninas, realizing the subtle transformation between painting and being painted and between looking and being looked...
The ingenious participation of the artists in the picture reveals nothing more than two intentions. One is to realize the wish of the artist for participating in the narration of the picture and the other is for the autobiographical documentary emphasis. However, Chen Chengwei shows a third intention in his works, namely, to realize personal narration with self-portraiture of different styles. The different styles demonstrate the creation of the artist for getting out his identity as a painter. Meanwhile, they are the conceptual self-portraiture. Therefore, Republic of China series displays a unique intrinsic modernity in this sense.
Such attempt implies the characteristics of avantgarde and experimental fashion beyond time and space. For example, painters created a renowned set of painting titled Amusement of Emperor Yongzheng in as early as Qing Dynasty. In the works, the image of Yongzhong as the emperor was greatly weakened. On the contrary, he acted as different characters bearing the symbols of Manchurian and Chinese culture in the pictures, like the hermit playing zither in the mountains, the scholar reading books in his study, the literati appreciating lotus and plum blossom, the recluse with the demeanor of a transcendent being, fisherman, lama, hunter, Taoist... After watching the great diversity of images, many people think that the works reflect a wide range of hobbies of Emperor Yongzheng. In fact, the works is not necessarily the real portrayal of Yongzheng who was busy with the governance of the country. It is more likely that they show personal cultural imagination. As the emperor of the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng tried to show his inclusive attitude towards different cultures by emphasizing civil and military factors and highlighting morality and talent. Perhaps the real intention of the works is to make the serious political statement more amusing.
Self-portraiture is also very popular in modern western art. Among them, the charm of self-portraiture is reflected especially in the conceptual photography of Cindy Sherman. She has taken a lot of photos of herself dressed up as film actresses, fairy tale characters, historical portraits, and typical public images of the society in the US to mock at the deception and illusion of the consumption society. Aiming at different groups rather than individuals, she has created the works of conceptual art that surpass the ordinary photography all on her own.
One is in ancient China and the other is in the west of modern times. The two examples mentioned above are irrelevant to each other in terms of the media and intention, yet they achieved dialectical unity. Yongzheng constructed and highlighted the new identities by acting as a variety of typical characters, yet all the identities were affiliated to the real identity of him as an Emperor. Cindy Sherman turned herself purely into props through deconstruction of her identity, yet it proved her identity as an artist in turn. The two examples reveal two paths of self-portraiture and typical features therein. Looking back at Chen Chengwei’s works, it seems that they are integrated versions of the two. The “self” in the picture is linking the virtual with reality. The works show the personal feelings of the artist. Sometimes he is distressed, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes relieved. Meanwhile, the works have always maintained the sense of distance between the stage and the audiences. Truth becomes fiction when the fiction is truth. The conversion of thoughts releases amazing artistic effects.
This tendency had been shown in the early autobiographical series of the artist. He dressed himself as a warrior, a western noble, a bearded man, a youth with long hair, a playboy in the republic period, an affectionate gentleman, and so on, in the self-portraitures. He even applied the original scenes in the self-portraitures of Rembrandt directly into his own self-portraitures. This is more of a parody than a self-portraiture. However, he was so earnest and pious in the parody that it seems that he was wholeheartedly immersed in the dreamland and transformed into the spiritual documentary of the artistic creation. In the painting Childhood Dream, the artist is dressed up in armor, ready to fight, with his eyes blazing, which truly restores the image of a valiant soldier. It used to be the innocent fantasy of his childhood. When he grew up, he continued the fantasy with art and solemnly captured it on canvas. In another picture, he appeared in the scene of Rembrandt's self-portraiture in 1660. Rembrandt was at the peak of his life when he completed the self-portraiture. He was in high spirits and showed an arrogant manner, which was vividly imitated by Chen. Chen hoped to pay his tribute to the great master in this way. Meanwhile, he tried to challenge the master to a certain extent with arrogance and pride. The ambitious young man in the picture is just so frank and fearless. However, who could have guessed how diligent and arduous he has been behind the picture to prepare for the commanding burst into bloom. Besides, the artist intended to inspire us to review the classic works in this way. Today, when we regard the oil painting masterpieces during the Renaissance and Baroque period as classics, the subtext is that they are out of date. The separation of time and space would often turn the classical taste into awkward imitation. However, the Autobiography series of the artist have broken through such isolation by absorbing the essence from the works of old masters directly and reconstructing the meaning space of the classics within contemporary context in a new form of self-portraiture.
The artist frankly indicated that he would devote his whole life to this kind of self-portraiture. Recording his life track in this way is just like writing a romantic film script which embodies the artist’s elegant spirit and great loyalty to his inner self. It seems ridiculous to illustrate the dramatic life with the Autobiography of Chen Chengwei at first thought, yet we will find that there couldn’t be any better choice if we ponder over this. Though people with diversified interests and characteristics have different life experience, none of them can be immortal. Different paths lead to the same destination, which is just like a dream.
While the Autobiography series are of the right level of fiction, the Republic of China series, however, demonstrate the increasingly mature visual language of the artist with the feeling and setting naturally blended under the background of distinctive features, which is completely different from the mode of self-portraiture. As the extension of the Autobiography series, there are two valuable points in addition to the modern realistic conceptual method in the Republic of China series.
Firstly, as a kind of cultural memory, the “Republic of China” has been widely illustrated in the modern society driven by commodity economy. From the TV series flooding the screen to the cheap fashion cosplay, cotton clothes, cheongsam, long gown, Chinese jacket and felt hat are all turned into historical symbols for the carnival of modern people. However, the previously mentioned signs of consumption could hardly be found in the Republic of China series which reflect mostly the personal feelings and historical perceptions of the artist. It constructs the emotional world in an introspective manner. According to Chen Chengwei himself, “the Republic of China series is not a representation of the history. After careful observation of the details, you can find that it is an interpretation exclusive to the current times. The pictures show a certain sense of both the history and the future, which can even be considered as mirror images of the history. They also suggest that something are hidden behind certain details such as the human shaped shadow of the character, the powerful hands stretching into the picture, the Party emblem reflected in the beam of the flashlight. The whole series reveal a trace of unique sentiment of painting which is actually the concept I want to bring in the pictures”.
In 《Moonlight Shadow》, a talented scholar and a lovely lady are standing face to face in the faint gleam of the candlestick and jewelry on the table, which seems indicate the grief of departure. In the two works of Red Rose and White Rose, the artist tells two fables of love with the titles of the novels written by female writer Zhang Ailing. As for Mysterious Fog, the female student is extremely calm under the brush of the artist at the dramatic moment of her being captured by the policeman. It seems that the conflict of rudeness and elegant, as well as oppression and resistance have already faded away with the passing of time, leaving only a faint imprint. As is expressed in Maxim of Darkness, the slender hands of the girl raising up high is highlighted by the ray of light which immediately enhances the tension of the incident. The method clearly shows the artist’s respect for the old master Rembrandt...All these works show the combination of emotion and event, with the integration of method and concept. The artist didn’t follow the logic of that time. On the contrary, he projected the current psychological state into his works. It is the portrayal of not only himself but also every viewer.
Secondly, the artist never gives up the pursuit of beauty. He hasn’t sacrificed the principle of beauty for the deliberate emphasis on modernity. Since Duchamp put a urinal with his signature into an art gallery in 1917, the anti-aesthetics tide of modern art has never subsided. It seems as if the uglier an art work is, the stronger sense of modernity it reflects. However, with the rising of somaesthetics, appearance aesthetics, and atmosphere aesthetics, modern art is beginning to show the tendency of returning to the real-time experience, and the aesthetic experience which pleases the eyes is included into the artistic creation again. In the Republic of China series, the participation of the artist in the scene has strengthened the concept of real-time presence. Meanwhile, the aesthetic quality of the art work has been maintained due to the classical realistic method. In the words of the artist, “I hope that artistic work should bring viewers the enjoyment of beauty rather than ugly and empty formalism and disgusting absurdism no matter it is a classical piece or an avant-garde creation”. On the path of exploration, Chen Chengwei hasn’t drifted with the tide blindly. With a persistent reverence for the aesthetic value, the artistic quality of his work has been greatly promoted.
The self-portraiture of Chen Chengwei not only covers the autobiographical expression in Amusement of Emperor Yongzheng, but also integrates the concept of Cindy Sherman-esque modernity. He hides the insight behind the beautiful and grotesque picture of imagination and reproduces the illusion in a solemn manner. The characters are frozen at a subtle but dramatic moment, creating a monumentality which touches the soul of the viewers. The artist is the subject and the character of the creation at the same time. The technique of metaphor provides the viewers an extensive space for imagination. His image could be found everywhere yet his true self could hardly be reached. Perhaps every image of him is the real portrayal or maybe has no connection to him, while he is just the mysterious detached observer hiding behind the works. The Republic of China series seems like a grand experimental drama with the artist serving as the director, actor, prop master, lighting technician, set designer, and all other roles related to the stage. In the series, imagination is set off from history to be portrayed in different scenes. The beautiful and intuitive pictures of strong contrast are really impressive. Perhaps it is the reason why people are still fascinated by the oil paintings of Chen Chengwei knowing clearly that they are pure fantasy. 2015年4月9日