Yan Pei-Ming is very a successful Chinese Contemporary artist who has very little to do with China. Like the modernist giant of Chinese painting, Zhao Wou-ki, Yan made a career for himself as a painter in his adopted country. On the occasion of his show, The Funeral of Mona Lisa, moving from the Louvre to the Abu Dhabi art fair, The National looks into his story:
The son of factory workers, born in 1960, shortly before the Cultural Revolution, Pei-Ming describes his childhood as peaceful. The family lived in a disaffected Buddhist monastery, which became the local police station in 1967. His talent for drawing was spotted at an early age and he was encouraged both at home and at school. “When I was 11,” he says, “my mother took me to buy calligraphy brushes which cost her the equivalent of a year’s salary.”
Trained, like his contemporaries, in the art of social realism, Pei-Ming’s earliest paintings were copies of propaganda posters, so it is, perhaps, no coincidence that the works for which he was first acclaimed in France were portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong. During the Cultural Revolution, Pei-Ming remembers how he painted workers and peasants, Mao and revolutionaries; images that fitted in with the current political ideals. Failing his entrance interview for Shanghai Art and Design School because of his stutter, Pei-Ming left China for France in 1980, gaining a student visa with the help of a family member who had settled in France. Life wasn’t easy at first. He struggled to learn French, studying painting by day at the art school in Dijon and working in a Taiwanese restaurant by night. This was followed by a year at the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques in Paris. Today he continues to live in Dijon where, he says, the vineyards remind him of rice paddies. Although three of his four siblings and his mother today live in France, he still returns regularly to China.
Throughout his career, Pei-Ming’s style has continued to contain echoes of totalitarian aesthetics. The large format of his portraits and the sometimes hierarchic attitude of his subjects, often political figures, use the legacy of social realism without ever falling into its trap. His simplified palette of black and white and grey with the occasional addition of a dramatic red is resolutely modern while his very gestural technique brings him into a lineage of painterly portraitists. He situates himself within a western canon and admires painters such as Velasquez, Raphael, Bacon, da Vinci, Titian, de Kooning and Warhol.
Pei-Ming lives and works in Dijon with a pied-à-terre in Paris, where he has a second studio in Ivry Sur Seine. “People come to the studio to see my work – my wife, my mother, friends and collaborators but I’m above all a solitary person,” he says. “I’m now working on a new exhibition which will go on show in London next year. I’m working on portraits of the Emperor of China and the British Queen. It’s a reflection on the nature of destiny and how our destinies are formed – what we’re capable of and to what extent we’re capable of change.”
Although he travels widely, he says he will always come home to France, a country towards which he feels grateful.
Da Vinci Reloaded (The National)