Jin Shangyi is a quintessentially official artist of the People’s Republic of China. His paintings are prominently displayed in the National Museum in Beijing and other State institutions, he is past president of the leading State-sponsored university of fine arts, honorary chairman of the National Artists Association, member of the People’s Political Consultative Conference and regularly serves on art-related committees of the government. Yet, this cultural exemplar of Chinese civilization would be right at home in a European art academy. His works are not brush-and-ink landscapes and flower paintings characteristic of the Chinese tradition, but oil-on-canvas figure studies that exemplify his lifelong study of European old masters.
This seeming contradiction underlies the current exhibition of Jin’s work at the newly constructed art museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Rather than a career survey, such as the 2005 retrospective at the National Art Museum of China, the Central Academy exhibition focuses on three paintings made in 2010, each inspired by the Dutch 17th-century master, Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). These pictures are copies of famous works by Vermeer that Jin has modified in order, he says, to express his own emotional perspective on contemporary life.
Jin’s act of homage, his “Compliments to Vermeer,” raises a number of issues that this essay will examine from the perspective of an art critic trained and working in the West.
What does it mean for a contemporary Chinese artist to abandon traditional brush-and-ink painting to adopt the medium and manner of the European Old Masters? Why devote himself to acquiring the techniques of classic academic painting and absorbing the artistic traditions of the West? Does Jin’s project underscore differences or shared values between Chinese and Western cultures? What role has classical realism played in modern Chinese history, and what place does it have in China and the West in an era dominated by abstract and Conceptual approaches? Can ancient European compositions be adapted to express ideas that are relevant today? How may we consider Jin’s work in a global context?
The entire piece of this essay can be viewed here:
Thoughts on a Chinese Artist Studying a Western Old Master (It can also be downloaded since the writer hopes it is available to students, faculty, and others who cannot afford or do not have access to the catalogue. )
Jason Edward Kaufman is an art critic and cultural reporter based in New York. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Art Newspaper and numerous other publications. For more information go to http://jasonkaufman.info/index.html, and for a free subscription to his IN VIEW Culture Bulletin click here http://jasonkaufman.info/amember/signup.php.