Diana Y. CHOU

Chen Yifei was one of the most prolific and successful artists in twentieth-century China. His paintings were well received by audiences in both Europe and the United States. He was also one of a small number of Chinese painters who was able to sell the majority of his paintings in his lifetime and to demand high prices.

Chen Yifei was born in Zhenhai, Zhejiang Province, and initially trained as an oil painter specializing in the realistic oil painting technique at Shanghai College of Art (or Shanghai Painting Academy) in the 1960s. He received his master of fine arts degree from Hunter College in New York City in the 1980s. At the Shanghai Academy of Art, his formal training was in Russian social realism; however, artists of the Baroque era and Romantic artists (such as the French painter Eugene Delacroix) may have influenced his composition and his use of light and shadow. He was commissioned by the Chinese Communist Party to design inspiration propaganda for the Military Museum in Beijing in 1977. He responded with the ambitious oil painting, Overturning the Dynasty of Chiang Kai-shek, which was completed in collaboration with Wei Jingshan (b. 1943). Another masterpiece, Looking at History from My Space (1979), which has been exhibited in the United States, displays a self-assurance and profound reflection of social realism and patriotic youth. Such views of historical events are characteristic of Chen’s works before 1980.

From 1981 to 1992 Chen resided in and traveled in the United States and Europe and expressed his view of China in a sentimental fashion. His paintings during this time often took as their focus Chinese women figures with elaborate traditional Chinese costumes. A typical example is Lingering Melodies from the Xunyang River (1991), which satisfied Western appetites with the “exoticism” and “Orientalism” of its subjects. From 1993 until 2005 Chen frequently visited China and expanded his artistic talents into industrial endeavors, including films and fashion designs. The first of his films was entitled Haishang jiumeng (Old Dreams of Shanghai, 1993). He died during the filming of his fifth film, Llifa shi (The Barber), in 2005. During his early film career Chen established a modeling agency to recruit and train actresses for his films. Some of these actresses later became models for his oil paintings. His modeling agency and his later work as a fashion designer grew out of his ambitions in the film industry. Through his various endeavors Chen intended to cultivate his actresses in bourgeois taste and manners. In 1997 Chen established his first logo and retail fashion store in Shanghai; today more than 170 retail stores in China bear his logo. During this productive post-1992 period he continued to execute realistic oil paintings. Women figures, dressed in traditional Chinese costumes, remained the focus of his oil paintings. In this last phase of his artistic career he also produced portraits of Chinese ethnic minorities, including Tibetans.

Chen Yifei’s early oil paintings were “academic” and “idealistic” in light of the motivation that sustains his artistic reputation in the modern era. However, such labels minimize the sophistication and depth of his early work. His choices of exotic subjects such as fashionable Chinese women were successful in terms of bringing him fame and fortune, but the “commercial” success of these works is controversial in terms of his deeper motivations and apparently compromised ideals. Chen abandoned his idealistic and patriotic view of China and found success in culturally decorative and visually appealing subjects. Furthermore, even though he focused on ethnic minorities in some of his later paintings, this choice comes across as simply a response to demands to produce a trendy cultural product. Although Chen consistently obtained supreme realistic techniques in oil painting, the subject matter and themes in later works failed to match his early monumental pieces in composition, sophistication, complexity, and depth of ideas and ideals.

Further Reading

Andrews, J. (1998). A century in crisis: Modernity and tradition in the art of twentieth-century China. New York: Guggenheim Museum.

Clunas, C. (1997). Art in China. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, J. (1987). The new Chinese painting: 1949–1986. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Sullivan, M. (1996). Art and artists of twentieth-century China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Yang, C. (Comp.). (2006). Chen Yifei zhuang ji [The biography of Chen Yifei]. Shanghai: Shanghai Bookstore.

Source: Chou, Diana Y.. (2009). CHEN Yifei. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 310–311. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

CHEN Yifei (Chén Yìf?i ???)|Chén Yìf?i ??? (CHEN Yifei)

Download the PDF of this article