Chen Yifei was born in 1948 and studied art in high school. During the Cultural Revolution, many political leaders, including Mao, took a liking to his work and contracted him to create many works to further the political cause of the party. For example, in 1949 he was commissioned, along with another painter, to create a work depicting a student who had tragically died in a flood while attempting to save timber from being washed away (Andrews 1994; 346). It was decided by top members of the Cultural Revolution that he would be depicted as a national model for selfless sacrifice. As Chen grew older, he moved away from creating such political pieces and became more Westernized — often painting musicians, dancers, or landscapes. I would like to create an exhibition that shows, through his work, this transition away from political propaganda. I would also like to place each painting in the context of the political climate at the time. Correlating the time period with the changes in Chen’s subjects will allow me to analyze how the historical events at the time influenced Chen’s ideology and his motivation for creating art. Toward the end of his life he became increasingly commercial, opening restaurants and creating a successful fashion line with another painter/designer (Tsui 2010; 189).
I would like to highlight one of Chen’s works, Thinking of History at My Space (1978), as the pivotal work in this transition. It is a self portrait that depicts Chen staring at a mural which shows times of adversity in Chinese History. It gives the feeling that Chen understanding the political influence of his work and debating on whether or not it is moral and he should continue. Finding the connection between Chen’s artistic/ideological changes and the historical events of the time period will not just teach us about Chen’s evolution, but about the evolution of Chinese art and politics as a whole.
Chen Yifei. Thinking of History at My Space. Oil on canvas, 1978.
Long Museum. Accessed February 07, 2019. http://thelongmuseum.org/en/work/overview/28fh.