In 1972, Chen Yifei created the huge oil painting “Ode to the Yellow River” (143.5 × 297 cm) when he was about 25 or 26 years old, in the energetic age to fulfill his dream. As the backbone of the Shanghai Creative Studio of Oil Painting and Sculpture – head of the group of oil painting, Chen Yifei almost painted three representative works at the same time in the 1970s, including “The Pioneers” (in collaboration with Wei Jingshan in 1971, collection of National Art Museum of China), “Ode to the Yellow River” and “Red Flag” (in 1972, or named “Ode to Red Flag”, collection of the artist). Among “The Pioneers” was selected in the National Art Museum of China in 1972, so that it publicly showcased in the capital, while “Ode to the Yellow River” and “Red Flag” were laid aside because of the changing situation and constraint of the “left” thought. It is said that “Ode to the Yellow River” was accepted by the National Art Exhibition in 1977, and “Red Flag” debuted at the hall of “New China Realism Oil Painting Classics Exhibition” (Shanghai Art Museum). But anyway, the three paintings earned the reputation for the artist in the art circles of Shanghai and even the country, so that after more than 20 years, when Chen Yifei held his solo retrospective at the National Art Museum of China in 1997, the predecessors Wang Qi and Cai Ruohong still constantly recalled his early representative in the articles for the exhibition [See Wang Qi’s “I See Chen Yifei’s Painting”, Cai Ruohong’s “Praising ‘Ode to the Yellow River’ ”, published in the “Art” vol.5, 1997.].
About why he created “Ode to the Yellow River”, Chen Yifei actually didn’t leave any article to recall it, but Chen Danqing wrote some related words: in 1971, I was an educated youth, running away from the gullies of the South of Jiangxi Province back to Shanghai, immediately learned a Shanghai headline of “news of oil painting”: According to the piano concerto “The Yellow River” created in 1969, “Shanghai Revolutionary Committee” ruled by Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, organized the creation of the oil painting series of the same names, Yan Guoji painted the first movement “The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen”, Chen Yifei painted the second one “Ode to the Yellow River”, Xia Baoyuan painted the fourth one “Anger of the Yellow River” … the creation of “The Yellow River” series was located in the “Jiefang Daily” press near the bund.
Obviously, Chen Yifei was politically arranged by the organization to paint “Ode to the Yellow River”, instead of his choosing a theme. It was a commonplace happening in the “Cultural Revolution”, there were a lot of painters established their reputation at that time by completing assigned tasks, among an representative was “Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan” by Liu Chunhua.
Chen Yifei set his wits to work about how to transform the lyrics and tweedle into visual images, he later recalled: The original idea of “Ode to the Yellow River” was to draw a shepherd, with a sheep belly scarf covered his head, carrying a pickaxe, facing the sky and singing Xintianyou. After rethinking, I found that the expression was almost the interpretation of the lyrics of “The Yellow River Cantata”, so that I resolutely abandoned it. It turned to a red army soldier, standing on the top of the mountains, proudly smiling in front of the giant river and mountains. In the creative process, I restored the blazing bright light on the top of the mountain on the canvas, rendered into a dazzling Chinese silver grass; the soldier with a rifle on his shoulder, and I drawn a small red cloth in the loophole, which was like a blooming bright flower, drawn a group of geese inclined flying south under his feet.
I think it is very beautiful, both heroic and romantic.
It is an essential adjustment that the protagonist is a soldier instead of a shepherd. The key is how to figurative the abstract “I”, it is important to adjust the shepherd to soldier, because the image does not only immediately strengthen the revolutionary meaning of the painting, but also it is easy to shape and paint a heroism model of “Hig Grade” style, while this “heroic and romantic” displacement of objects fully complies with the guiding principle of literature and art creation in the period of “Cultural Revolution”.
It’s certainly that image idea is just the start of the creation, and transforming idea into creation is in need of the implement of various aspects such as plastic techniques, composition and organization, and I will talk about the characteristics of “Ode to the Yellow River” from these two aspects.
As Chen Yifei said, he was trained in the Soviet Union’s teaching system when he was a painting student, because his college teacher Yu Yunjie graduated from the Central University and learned with Xu Beihong in his early age, studied in the oil painting training class of the Soviet Union’s expert Makcnmob. K. M (1913-1993) in the mid-1950s. The shape of “Ode to the Yellow River” focuses on the arrangement of blocks of surfaces and performance of strokes; the soldier’s legs and the rock under his feet are reflected by light, use of brushes and canvas palette knife to thickly pile colors on it, so that it is strongly, naturally and unrestrainedly described; the color is bright, so that it feels like a strong brilliant golden light – and the so-called “impressionism” oriental was the crime covering the painting for years.
The author would like to point out that, for a 20-something young painter, the efforts to try to “promote the realistic painting foundation to the romantic style of heroism” were actually led by a trend (it was certainly that it had a relationship with Chen’s personal temperament), and given a persuasive instance or reason it was the huge Chinese painting “Battle in Northern Shaanxi” created by Shi Lu in 1959. Seen from the creative conception, composition and organization of the “Battle in Northern Shaanxi” and “Ode to the Yellow River”, the historical connection it is obviously to place the character in the landscape, with a magnificent view, which is both heroic and romantic. The difference is that Chen Yifei had his own expression and process, and he seemed to reset the seat of the camera, changing the narrow vision to the broad one – shifting the square composition of the “Battle in Northern Shaanxi” to the rectangular composition of “Ode to the Yellow River”; shifting the virtual to the reality –shifting the dotting character in the “Battle in Northern Shaanxi” to a huge character in the “Ode to the Yellow River”; shifting overlooking to looking at the front horizontally – changing the focus from the depth of ravines of the “Battle in Northern Shaanxi” to the boundless river of “Ode to the Yellow River”. Being good at learning and changing, painting as naturally as possible, without leaving any trace, reflects the talent and quality of Chen as an artist.
After years, Chen achieved success and won recognition in the international art market, when a journalist asked him, “Which one do you think is the most successful”, Chen thought: “In the initial impression, the most proud work remains the ‘Ode to the Yellow River’ ”.
Translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO.