Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Dark Side of Art

Revolutions are always very violent.
There’s always blood,
and the winners always write the history.

Yan Pei-Ming

Afflicted with the speech impediment of a stutter the Franco-Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming avoided the company of his childhood peers and found his self-expression through painting and drawing. Growing up in Mao Zedong’s inspired Cultural Revolution his skill was recognized and utilized during his adolescent schooldays.

As he told the South China Morning Post Those who could draw well would be chosen to draw propaganda pictures for the school. I was one of them. I drew people like Mao Zedong and Red Guards, which was a piece of cake. It was just a matter of copying and I usually did it well.

This skill did little to advance his dream of attending art school. As he explained “When I was 18, I tried to get into the Shanghai Art and Design Academy but was rejected because of my stutter.

Although rejected Pei-Ming desire was such that he traveled half way round the world to France to pursue his dream. As he tells the story “I had an uncle living in Paris. So I joined him there in 1980 to start anew. I had wanted to go to the National School of Fine Arts in Paris but I got rejected again. I didn't know what to do. Fortunately, my uncle, who was very nice to me, found me a job in Dijon. It was to wash dishes in a Chinese restaurant run by a Taiwanese family... I washed dishes in the restaurant in the evening and went to a French language school during the day. I was pleased to be able to earn a living and study at the same time. When my French got better, a year later, I was able to get out of the kitchen and became a waiter. I also started going to the art school of Dijon, where I spent five of the best years of my life. Our teachers did not teach us how to draw, but they guided us to think about why we wanted to make a painting and what we tried to express.

Adopting a palette restricted to black, white and red to distinguish himself from the great painters of the past, Pei-Ming produced epic sized portraits. As he recalled “One man I portrayed was old Mao. I always see him as a great statesman and a great man of letters. Before I left China, I used to paint him often, so painting him in France was a continuation of what I had been doing. But there was another reason why I chose Mao. At the time, no one in France knew Yan Pei-Ming but everyone knew Mao Zedong. So painting Mao was a sort of strategy to promote myself as a painter.

It was a strategy that paid off with Pei-Ming becoming the first living artist since Picasso to be given an exhibition at the Louvre along with two solo exhibitions in New York and Biennale exhibitions in Venice, Seville and Istanbul.

A self-confessed pessimist the darker side of life is never far away from Pei-Ming’s work. As he told the Huffington Post A lot of emotional states appear in my work: my anxiety, my pain, my uncertainty. It is important for death to be present as well -- and, of course, energy and life. I don't need to sugarcoat or make things fancy. Paintings aren't for cuddling.”

Pei-Ming’s current exhibition Aggressive Beauty is on show at Salzburg’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac until the 26th of August.

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