Artist and World Citizen
By staff reporter ZHANG HONG
FOR Chinese-American artist Chen Jinfang (Chen Tsing-fang), painting is the work of head, heart and guts. He is determined to create 100 works depicting the Shanghai World Expo, an artistic legacy of the great event. Although now 75 years old, he lies awake at night thinking about his compositions. “Once an inspiration strikes, I have to get to work immediately,” he says. He bought 70 advance admission tickets, and goes to the Expo Park every few days, sometimes just for the afternoon, sometimes from morning till night.
A Blending of Cultures
In 1968 Chen Jinfang translated the illustrated French story The Little Prince from English into Chinese, and indeed he looks like a senior version of the Little Prince himself, with eyes full of curiosity and rosy cheeks, both rare in men of his age. He introduces his paintings on the wall like the Little Prince introduces his rose.
“Look, this is the British Pavilion, the famous ‘seed bank.’ More than 90,000 tubes form a pattern resembling the British national flag. The sunlight falls on these seeds, and through triangular prism, they shine in rainbow colors, representing the life of plants.”
From outside Chen Jinfang’s gallery in Shanghai, one can see the China Pavilion in the distance. At the gallery entrance hangs his painting The Huangpu River, the World Expo Dream: Behind the “Oriental Crown,” the iconic structure of the China Pavilion, flows the Huangpu River, with the buildings alongside reflected in its waters. The dramatic changes that have swept Shanghai in the past few decades are conveyed in this canvas.
Coming to Shanghai to create paintings of the Expo has been a dream long harbored by Chen. He made two reconnaissance visits to Shanghai last year, once in May and again in September, before taking action. In April 2010 he found an apartment in a residential area near the Expo Park. At a monthly rental of RMB 10,000, this is a considerable outlay for him, but he believed it was justified: “Living here I can feel the World Expo, and this gives me inspiration.”
He has completed 46 paintings, 10 of them portraying the China Pavilion. Clearly, the “Oriental Crown” is of focal interest for this veteran artist.
Chen is not satisfied with just collecting subject matter from the Expo Park. Everyday he watches TV news for updates on events in various pavilions. At night he consults reference materials such as Technological Innovation in the World Exposition and World Exposition and Art. On the completion of each painting he adds detailed captions in Chinese and English.
Only a wall separates his apartment from the Expo Park, but like other visitors, Chen has to go through a tight security check to get in. His paints are banned, so he has to bring his camera and sketchbook to record the highlights.
He spent three days creating works depicting the U.S. Pavilion, and ten days on the Japan Pavilion. Once, he took over 1,000 reference photos in the Park, but unfortunately, lost them all and had to start over.
Prior to the Expo mission, Chen had produced 66 paintings of the Olympic Games, 100 works on the Statue of Liberty and 100 in the style of Vincent van Gogh. This latter effort won him the name “successor to van Gogh” from Dr. Jan Hulsker, curator of the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and former minister of Culture of the Netherlands.
The artist sees the Expo as the best platform to promote a global artistic renaissance. “It has given me a wealth of subjects and content to work with,” he remarks.
“The exterior of the Estonian Pavilion resembles a huge patchwork of abstract paintings. The British Pavilion is interesting too. It confines itself to one display. The large interior space is simply for taking a rest.”
He enjoys the pavilion architecture, pointing out: “Many buildings break with tradition – they make the oblique upright, treat void space as solid, put what was below on top, and vice versa. Maybe this will become the fashion for new era architecture.”
Why is he so intrigued with the Expo? Chen sits up straight before answering: “The World Expo is a place where various cultures merge. Without this kind of event, it is hard to imagine one city being able to bring together the best of more than 200 countries and organizations.”
Art for Humanity
Chen Jinfang, who dubs himself a “world citizen,” began his nomadic life at the age of 26, and has published 28 books. His family roots go back to Luoyang in Henan Province, which his ancestors fled from calamity, later settling in Taiwan. For his part, Chen Jinfang went from Taiwan via Europe to America, and finally back to China – “coming full circle” as he puts it.
Born in Taiwan, Chen Jinfang classes himself as a “man of the old times.” He wears a traditional front-buttoned white jacket and never uses computers or cell phones. Inspired by van Gogh, he decided he wanted to be an artist at the age of 14. He practiced hard in the academic style, sketching plaster statues of Venus for three years. Then he went to study in France, and got a doctorate in the history of modern art.
During his student years, abstract art was king. Everyone was trying to be different. Abstract art is “art for art’s sake,” but Chen Jinfang’s ideal is “art for humanity.” In his opinion, “Abstractionism is a ‘fragmented’ genre, each individual artist becoming his/her own school.” Having reflected deeply for two years, he concluded that an era of “integrating” would surely follow.
He was soon proved right. The Internet has reduced the globe to a village, and the blending of oriental and occidental cultures is becoming more evident by the day.
Chen Jinfang might be described as an “artistic magpie,” bringing together all manner of images. Western art critics class his oils as “ Neo-Iconography” and his techniques “celebratory.”
“The Expo draws all the sciences, technologies and cultures of the world for exhibition. It can be seen as a great gathering of world civilization,” said Chen.
As a cultural ambassador of the United Nations, Chen Jinfang came to China in 2008 to create paintings depicting the Olympic Games. When Chen Jinfang completed 66 paintings on the Games, the Olympic Committee Chairman Jacques Rogge remarked that no single artist had previously combined the sports gala with art as Chen did.
In 2010, the Taiwan Cite Group published Chen’s biography The World Dream of a Taiwan Youngster, describing his experience from a child who liked to daub everywhere to cultural ambassador of the United Nations. Subsequently the press beat a path to his door for interviews, but after March he declined all interviews, concentrating instead on his artistic ambitions. He came with his wife to Shanghai, visited the Expo Park, and started painting.
Expo and the Arts
The windows of Chen Jinfang’s apartment reflect the light from the Expo Park’s Sunny Valley, a favorite with Chen and the subject of two paintings, daytime and nighttime scenes respectively. In the first Chen uses all the colors of the rainbow to show the energy of sunlight; in the second, reminiscent of van Gogh’s Starlit Sky, Sunny Valley is illuminated by LED lights.
“Through this World Expo, Sunny Valley will become a lasting symbol of human civilization. I see it as a hymn to the advent of solar energy,” Chen explains.
His painting of the Danish Pavilion was his first Expo work. Bicycles are its main theme and this impressed the artist deeply. “The pace of modern civilization is too fast: it outstrips what our bodies are capable of. To keep fit, we should ride bikes.”
The French Pavilion displays The Angelus, a famous work by Jean-Francois Millet, from which one of Chen’s paintings takes its cue. In this perfect combination of Chinese and Western art, farmers are shown working and praying at dusk, against a Shanghai background of the China Pavilion and the Oriental Pearl Tower.
Chen’s World Expo series includes other icons of the Expo, such as its mascot Haibao, the panda of China, Mount Fuji and the cranes of Japan, the Statue of Liberty and the architect I.M. Pei of the U.S., the matador and Picasso of Spain, the Kongming Lantern and indigenous people of Taiwan. He creates a grinning Haibao by the ancient Town God’s Temple in Shanghai, with international tourists crowding around.
“The Expo has made these 3.28 square kilometers of Pudong the greatest concentration of icons in the world. Italian fashion, French painting, Japanese robots … these are all symbolic cultural images,” says Chen. In his view, “The World Expo and the Olympic Games share the goals of the United Nations – peace for the world and happiness for mankind.”
The World Expo has a tradition of integrating with the arts. At the very first such exhibition in 1851, hundreds of sculptures were on display, and at the 1900 event in Paris more than 100 sculptures by Auguste Rodin were exhibited.
“The 168 Rodin sculptures at the Paris Expo created an international sensation. This time, in Shanghai, his sculpture The Thinker is being shown at the French Pavilion, which underlines his importance to the World Expo,” says Chen.
As a Chinese artist, Chen Jinfang has chosen to participate in this great event by means of his art and he has really thrown himself into the task, saying, “To miss out on the Expo would be a lifelong regret.” At the end of the event, his paintings will continue to be exhibited in Shanghai.
The theme of the Shanghai Expo is “Better City, Better Life.” In Chen Jinfang’s view, “Art will make city life much better.”
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