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True to himself despite the culture shocks

By Zhang Zixuan | China Daily | Updated: 2010-11-26 07:59

Some years ago I watched a TV documentary about the iconic artist Chen Danqing, in which many of his friends and schoolmates mentioned how good looking he is.

Having seen him recently at the opening of his solo exhibition 10 Years after Return, of oil paintings done since returning from New York in 2000, I can confirm he is indeed physically attractive.

Dressed in black and smoking with perfect aplomb, it's no wonder he sends girls crazy, I thought. As a 57-year-old, his age makes him edgier and sexier.

Even so, it's his outspokenness that has made him such a hit among the general public.

True to himself despite the culture shocks

At the opening of his exhibition, the presence of several government officials, including three vice ministers from the Ministry of Culture, illustrated what a big deal he is. Along with Chen's former teachers and schoolmates, among the most authoritative professionals in China's fine art field, they spent an hour praising Chen's achievements.

Chen is used to playing the role of a wet blanket on such harmonious occasions, I guess. He insisted his painting skills have declined and he will never paint as well as he did at 15.

Moreover, he didn't forget to criticize the Chinese art education system, which he has been doing for the past 10 years, in front of these powerful people within the system. He called the occasion "a temporary truce" between him and officialdom and didn't care about the awkwardness he created among his guests.

The realistic and classical painter hung several empty frames that were exquisitely carved in the most visible spots of the exhibition hall, claiming his paintings were not good enough to deserve the frames.

He could have been tactful and enjoyed the moment, like others do, but he didn't.

He said his return to China heralded "a decade of furious attack on China's art education system" and he would "persist for sure".

He initially returned to teach at Tsinghua University, until he determined that it was "insane" for so many talented young artists to be deprived of the chance of further education because of their failed scores in the so-called "cultural" course examination, which comprises English and politics, and which he says is totally irrelevant to oil painting.

Chen eventually resigned and instead of devoting himself to painting, spent a lot of the rest of the time writing and speaking out on social and cultural phenomena he believed were unjust.

"Chen's expression may be a little off-scale and strongly worded, but what Chen has brought up is definitely worth thinking about and re-examining," says Shao Dazhen, art theorist and professor of Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Chen paid the price as an artist for his outspokenness, however. This was a loss which Yang Feiyun, dean of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, described as "harrowing and a big loss for the Chinese art world".

As a result, Yang "coerced" Chen into painting more by lending him a studio with a skylight but refusing to take rent. Finally, Chen was persuaded to hold the solo exhibition in return.

Chen says his passion for art, as a self-taught teenager, has been renewed.

"Now, fame has nothing to do with it. All I know is I love painting, and that's it."

Watching numerous emerging and established artists pore over every detail of Chen's paintings, it appeared that in fact Chen's powers have not diminished.

Born in Shanghai, dispatched to a rural village, getting into college, going overseas and returning, Chen's life seems to be a series of culture shocks. But being true to himself has been a constant for him, whether as an artist, a writer, public figure, or person.

"I'm just telling the truth," he says.

China Daily  

(China Daily 11/26/2010 page18)

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