Sunday, 26 April 2009

Yan Pei Ming

Self Portrait, 2003
Oil on Canvas 220 x 220 cm

Frieze Art Fair
October 2007

I have seen is work a number of times at art fairs, this piece was on the David Zwirner stand at Frieze in 2007. It is a self portrait and typical of his style with the head filling the canvas. He always works in one or two colours (usually black or red) mixed with white. This one looks like burnt umber. He was born in Shanghai in 1960 and moved to France in 1980 and the use of such a controlled palette reflects an aesthetic influence from the brush and ink paintings of the Chinese cultural tradition.

I presume it is painted from a photograph, as all his other economical portraits of iconic or historic figures (for example, Chairman Mao, Pope John Paul II, Bruce Lee, and now Barack Obama) are. The composition is also very typical, with the face central and touching all sides of the large square canvas.

Despite its larger than life size, the way the head is tilted slightly forwards with a shy downwards gaze gives a sense of intimacy. He suffers from a stutter (the reason why he was rejected from art college in Shanghai) and this may have a connection with both the melancholic themes and the very expressive brushwork of his paintings. He achieves the latter on such a scale by using 20 and 30 inch paint brushes attached to long poles. He has even pieced brushes together to make a 50 inch brush! He explains how this approach developed in an interview:

“In 1983 or 1984, I went to Holland and saw the Van Gogh Museum, and I counted how many times he did his brush strokes. So I said, 'If I do a much bigger piece, how many brush strokes should I have?’ I figured, if you have a bigger painting you should have a bigger brush."[1]

The majority of the surface is the very physical application of thick paint, but the final touches of flecks of thin paint are what distinguishes his work; denying painterly depth and pinning the image to the surface.

The scale of the work is also of interest; the magnifying small photographs into iconic portraits indicates not just a influence from Andy Warhol but also the propaganda posters of Mao Zedong that used to cover every civic wall in China. Seen in this context, perhaps painting his self portrait on this scale implies identification with his own lost cultural heritage, and it is memories of painting images of workers and peasants, familiar images that fitted in with the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, that are hidden behind the shy gaze of the artist.

[1] Master of the Big Brush Strokes: Yan Pei Ming By David Barboza Artzinechina

©blackdog 2009


  1. A very carefull and detailed description of the painting with interesting analysing remarks about the biograpical and cultural background of the painter and his painting style. The facial expressions of this self- portrait might show a more introverted person- the eyes seem to wander inside, in any case a very thoughtful face or immersed in thoughts, some sad or melancholic looking for sure, this expression may be enhanced by the brown-grey, a bit dirty toning of skin and hair and the shadow-parts on the left half of the face (a kind of division/splitting as of a personality with 'two faces' or "two souls in my breast"?), under the eyes, on the forehead...
    In general Asian faces look mostly rather strange- different to me and I have difficulty to 'read' their emotions, but I have to admit that this painted face here looks rather familiar to me, I feel a kind of sympathy with the man or a kind of narrowness so that I had probably no problem to communicate with him- it is a face of a human being I could know or I could myself be!

  2. The name of the galerist David Zwirner evokes some remembrances: I knew his grandparents well, living near my home town in a little village, and his father Rudolf Zwirner whose career began in Cologne. The mother of Rudolf Z. told me how she and her son walked through the modern galleries of Paris and they bought and collected pieces of painters who were not famous then, they had the right 'taste'- Mrs. and Mr. Zwirner were very impressive characters with an exceptional feeling for art and literature, I loved them ( they died some years ago)- oh, sorry, I ignored the theme of your blog! Never mind!

  3. Not at all Philine - fascinating background to David Zwirner. He is one of the top gallerists and represents an impressive array of good artists. Looks like a lot of that good taste rubbed off on their grandson!

    I must admit to struggling with most of the new wave of art coming from a Chinese source, but Pei-Ming is the exception. His work is very thoughtful and I can relate both to the themes and the cultural influences. Have been to China quite a few times in the late 1990's - it seemed to leap forwards 10 years every time I visited, I wonder what its like now?