The large-scale exhibition of “Portraits of the Times” that is on display in the Imperial Ancestral Temple, is all-encompassing and gathers various forms of art together among which the portraits of oil painting can be said to be the most important creative category of portraits. As one of the most famous female artists in China, Yu Hong, an artist who teaches at the Department of Oil Painting of CAFA, has been focusing on the observation, reflection and creation of a social life and people of the time. It features the “Red Child” at the exhibition, which uses her daughter as the subject with the girl dressed in blue sitting against a golden backdrop that is unforgettable. When Yu Hong was interviewed by CAFA ART INFO, she started with the work and explained the meaning of “portraits of oil painting” from her viewpoint, the connection between “the times” and “artistic creation”, as well as the understanding and thoughts of the portraits in the artistic creation and art teaching. Let’s listen to the artist expounding on how to gaze at the portraits and how to escape from the external form to understand the profound meaning hidden in the work.

Date: January 28, 2018

Interviewee: Yu Hong

Interviewer: Zhang Yizhi from CAFA ART INFO

Translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

CAFA ART INFO: The thematic creation of “Portrait” has always been one of the most important topics of artistic expression, and it is also a mirror of the spirit of the times. Then, having started from the perspective of artistic creation, how do you understand the word “times” in the exhibition themed “Portraits of the Times”? Would you like to combine your work to talk about it?

Yu Hong: Portraits of the times or the times is such a big topic. I chose the “Red Child” to enter the exhibition, based on the theme of portraits. The definition of portraits is very clear, but I rarely draw a portrait of a person, while the subjects of the majority of my works of oil paintings are the combination of many people, so I only have a few options. I drew my daughter, who prefers to take photos of herself, in this piece. It portrays the girl holding her camera and has been trying her best at photography. Therefore, I chose the portrait of my daughter for this exhibition.

Yu Hong’s exhibited work “Red Child”

CAFA ART INFO: Is this piece a sketch or a creation? Would you like to talk about the relationship between sketching and thematic creation in the creation of portraits?

Yu Hong: This piece is a creation rather than a simple sketch, based on the original photo to shape and paint the portrait. Although the portraits contain the feelings of traditional oil painting, they do not need to be standing or sitting, in a posture, but incorporate more changes and possibilities. Portraits were popular in the past, and some important figures and distinguished figures would invite artists to paint portraits for them, and the artists would draw a portrait of themselves. Now this demand is not as strong as before, because a portrait no longer commissioned and the artists pay more attention to the portrayal of the inner world and pay more attention to independent creations.

CAFA ART INFO: Does this “contemporary”, “spirit of the times” carry a unified will? What kind of relationship between it and the self-awareness is included in the personal artistic creation? What impact do the times and society have on the artist?

Yu Hong: Because people live in the times, they will inevitably be affected by the times. And both the positive and negative factors of the times have a significant impact on everyone. For an artist, the influence is directly or indirectly reflected in the work. I am still very concerned about social realities. My creative themes are directly related to what has happened during the time and the things surrounding me. However, I have rarely created a portrait of one person, and my works are mainly the paintings themed on a group of people.

Installation view of the exhibition

CAFA ART INFO: There are many discussions on the portraits of the times, some people think that the narrative and creative paintings of prominent thematic features, fail to focus on depicting an individual so it can’t be strictly counted as a portrait, how do you understand this issue?

Yu Hong: I personally think that portraits depict one or two objects. The paintings of a group of people don’t belong to portraits. Portraits are still a category of oil painting, although it is called portrait, it is certainly different from the sketch of a man, a fragment or a moment in the life of a man. Portraits require creators to express the man in the painting through his movement and state, rather than a specific individual moment.

CAFA ART INFO: Man is a vivid existence based on the times, and his portrait is also the face of the spirit of the times. The portraits’ functions are different from those of the past. In terms of the categories of oil paintings, what is the current status quo of portraits today and what are the problems with them? How do you think of these issues?

Yu Hong: At present, there are a variety of artistic expressions, the concepts in various fields, in addition to portraits which have had a broadening experience, and we are also in the process of constant change. In the past, the creation of portraits depicted a model or a particular object, sitting at a certain place or observing it from a particular perspective, but now it has changed and the mode of creation and the process of creation are more extensive and cover more possibilities.

Portraits are influenced by photography, films and videos, and portraits in oil paint are neither the fastest, nor the most convenient and vivid way to express one’s artistic expression, but they focus on the inner world of human beings. In other words, oil painted portraits require viewers to gaze, to experience, in addition to experiencing an external form.

Installation view of the exhibition

CAFA ART INFO: Would you like to combine the teaching of the Department of Oil Painting to talk about your opinion about the portrait creation? What position does the portrait of oil painting have in the teaching of the Department of Oil Painting? Is this a focus of the teaching categories?

Yu Hong: There are a lot of courses of portraits arranged as classes in the Department of Oil Painting, for example, sketching of portraits – including the bust and full-length life drawing of a man. However, these courses emphasize the reinforcement of practice rather than a creation, and it is a process of accumulation. In the previous creation, we didn’t emphasize that the painting portrays a person, it is a portrait creation and students were allowed to draw any subject that they were interested in, but the creative courses have been divided into specific categories including still life, landscapes and portraits in the past two years. Because students tend to be confused during the learning process, a limited category of creation can offer them some direction and give them a certain range of control.

In the process of the portrait creation, the students are required to observe at first, and teachers also offer them a lot of information on teaching. For example, we help them to know how painters drew portraits in the past, what the differences are between the East and the West, what different materials they choose. It offers them an opportunity to understand the styles of portrait creation, to form a basic concept, and then go on to create their own portrait creation. Landscape and still life creation is concentrated on the sophomores, while the portrait creation is concentrated on the juniors, and they can select the theme according to their own interest and creation when they are the seniors.

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