Sheepherder, Chen Danqing

1980, oil painting on wood, 79 x 52 cm
Sheepherder, 1980, oil painting on wood, 79 x 52 cm

“Even when they simply stand, they are a painting” (Peng 2010: 759).  This was the mentality employed by Chen Danqing throughout his famous Tibetan series – to depict ordinary life and the humanistic spirit. Chen’s art was considered to be associated with art known as “life-stream,” heavily reliant on the critiques of social realism to depict naturalistic images.  ‘Sheepherder’ follows this very idea of realistic painting to portray “ordinary life with utterly non-dramatic and non-literary themes” (Peng 2010: 757).  In its simplest form, Sheepherder exemplifies the aims of Chen to humanize the Tibetan people.

The Sheepherder painting, like the rest of the Tibetan series, uses oils for artistic expression.  Although Sheepherder is specifically oil on wood, it follows the same tendencies of Chen’s other Tibetan paintings – to experiment with texture and pay attention to surface effects (Peng 2010: 759).  Nevertheless, within the painting, we see two Tibetans in what appears to be a loving interaction – perhaps a kiss on the cheek.  Adorned in traditional Tibetan garb, the two individuals’ embrace illustrates Chen’s goals in depicting his Tibetan subjects as “human” that share similar emotional tendencies.  But what’s important here is to not look at these two individuals as part of a painting, but rather as part of a study – a study of the Tibetan people to disprove any myths or misconceptions that flooded the mainstream mentality.

With earth tones dominating the painting, Chen suggests a strong connection or closeness of the Tibetan people to the outdoor life. This is also seen within the general setting and context of the piece – a rugged landscape to correspond with their rather rustic lifestyle.  But again, what is crucial here is the focus on the people.  Placed in the center of the piece, the audience is forced to immediately connect with the people and the emotions they exude – an affectionate interaction that speaks to the humanity that is shared even on the remote plateaus of Tibet. This comes from Chen’s desire to overturn the artificiality of the Cultural Revolution aesthetic and seek authenticity in new forms of realism” (Andrews, Shen 2012: 207).

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Julia F., Andrews, and Shen Kuiyi. “Art After Mao.” In The Art of     Modern China, 207. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012.

Peng, Lu. “Scar Art and the Life-Stream.” In A History of Art in 20th Century China, 757-780. Milano: Edizioni Charta Srl, 2010.