Beautiful body of work
REPORTERS attending artist Yang Feiyun's press conference for his first solo exhibition recognized his wife ahead of the artist himself because her image dominated the works on display.
Yang prefers to paint familiar people to models he does not know well although the latter may have better qualifications as subjects. "I know her best," he said of his wife, "and I have the deepest feelings for her. It's the easiest and most convenient option, so I paint her."
Yang, 49, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, is recognized as one of the top painters in oils in China in the classical style.
Even though his fame as a leading Chinese painter was established more than 10 years ago, Yang has never had a solo exhibition. With the help of the Mountain Art Foundation from Taiwan, which has been supporting mainland modern art for a decade, Yang is taking his solo exhibition on tour across China. The first stop is Shanghai.
Apart from the works collected by the Mountain Art Foundation, Yang has also brought out a large number of works from his private collection, many of which are portraits of his wife, Pengpeng.
More than 150 of them are on exhibition in the Shanghai Art Museum from April 6 to 16.
Yang was born in the countryside of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. He worked on the railway in Hohhot in the 1970s, first as a locksmith, then as an art clerk in the Culture Palace of the Railway Bureau, painting movie and political posters.
"I did quite a few portraits of Chairman Mao," he recalled. This early experience in portraiture helped him perfect his painting technique.
When the cultural revolution (1966-76) ended and the national college entrance examination resumed in 1978, the director of the Cultural Bureau showed him a newspaper advertisement seeking enrollments for the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Eight students were to be chosen for the oil painting class nationwide. Yang didn't think it possible that he would be accepted, but he went to Beijing with the encouragement of his director.
His talent was recognized by Jin Shangyi, Dean of the Oil Painting department of the Academy. "I was very lucky to be able to enter the Academy, and met the best teacher in China. Mr Jin taught me a lot, not only the academic aspects of painting but also personally."
After graduation, he worked as an art teacher in the Central Academy of Dramatic Arts but a few years later, he was called back to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, under Jin.
His works started to win him various national awards in the mid-1980s. In 1988, the first national nude oil painting exhibition was held in Beijing's National Art Museum, which has become a major event. People waited in long lines in front of the exhibition hall to see all the nude portraits.
"We felt regret at people's preoccupation with the exhibition. They expected to see obscenity, but they found beauty and realized that the human body is the most perfect creation," Yang said. The classical realistic style and his delicacy of execution also helped inspire viewers.
"We thought at that time, that China had opened up. We have been studying and painting nudes in the Academy forever and we thought we could exhibit them as art works." But the social effect of the paintings was unexpectedly high because the Chinese people had been shut out from it for decades.
"I paint in praise of life, beauty and youth," Yang said about his pursuit of art. "Women, with their unique aesthetic and expression of emotions, colours and scents, are more fit for appreciation and artistic expression.
"I want to catch the essence of Oriental beauty in Chinese women. Even when I paint modern characters, I try to decrease the modern element in them."
The result is that, women and young girls under his brush have a peaceful and leisurely appearance. The models, if not his wife, have something in common with her.
More than a wife
Pengpeng, his wife and agent, in a coat of a traditional Chinese design, was shooting pictures with a digital camera. She looks a little smaller and older than in her portraits. The couple has a 10-year-old boy, who also appears in one of Yang's works.
"They are my first audience and critics," Yang said.
Pengpeng herself is a professional painter. "We try to make our styles different," Yang said. "Many artists think highly of Pengpeng's paintings."
Having been an art teacher for 20 years he has reservations about China's art education system. "One doesn't have to enter a college to become an artist. The present educational system gives some solid requirements for students, sometimes putting mediocre ones into the frame while dropping out the real talent," he said.
"The college entrance examination doesn't test a student's love for art, but his examination skills. There used to be a workshop system in Europe during the Renaissance when students lived with their teachers and worked with them.
"That system had its limitations, such as setting up fixed styles. But it gave students a better opportunity for the cultivation of personality. I wish modern education could be combined with it.
Warming to his theme Wang said: "Education is communication between individuals. One influences others with his life. A teacher should be good at technique, virtue, and academic achievements."
Yang believes that art is belief. "I believe in the Chinese theory of harmony between people and the world, and the Christian values of truth, goodness and beauty. Art is the overflow of one's internal beauty. It carries noble feelings."
His students include some avant-garde artists such as Zhao Bandi, but his supreme passion is for classical European Renaissance paintings and Greek sculptures. "Modern media can't take the place of painting, which goes beyond literature, music, and philosophy," he said.
The artist's ambition, he said, should be to catch what everybody feels at heart but which nobody puts under the paint brush, "like the poetry of Li Bai, telling the simple truth in the plainest language."
A great pity for Chinese oil painters, he thought, is the lack of real art museums. "People can't get access to the original masterpieces." The Shanghai Art Museum, he said, is actually like a gallery, giving various exhibitions, but not able to display regularly good works that one can come and watch any time.
Yang came to Shanghai for the first time in 1979, when he visited Chen Yifei in the oil painting and sculpture workshop.
"Chen had just produced a masterpiece at that time. He was like a big brother to us." The two painters went on very different tracks afterward. Chen has become a media and fashion tycoon but Yang stuck to his painting. "We have both been successful in the ways we chose," he said.