The signature monochrome watercolour portraits of Yan Pei-Ming depict contemporary history through bold, quick brush strokes. As his latest exhibition opens in Doha, Qatar, the artist talks exclusively to Luxuryculture.
The artist Yan-Pei Ming defies categorization. Born in Shanghai in 1960 but settled in Dijon, France, since he was 19, he considers himself undefined by nationality (“I want to be known as an artist without frontiers,” he says); a collector’s favourite who is represented by mega dealer David Zwirner, he distances himself from the contemporary art market (“The auction house sales rooms are just like credit rating agencies”); a portraiture specialist, he is equally concerned with recording the history of art as the history of man (“Portraiture is an essential part of art and of understanding humanity”).
A new exhibition of his work on show in Doha, Qatar, perhaps best explains Yan-Pei Ming’s unique vision. ‘Painting the History’ at the QMA Gallery in Katara, features 100 portraits of influential figures of the Arab world and 50 portraits of assassinated political leaders from the beginning of the 20th century. “This is not a project about the Arab revolution,” he clarifies. “It’s more about the evolution of identity and of the people who contributed to the evolution in the Arab mentality. It’s about history.”
Executed in his signature watercolours in shades of grey, a final component of the show is an epic triptych based on ‘The Death of Marat’ by Jean Louis David, one of the most famous paintings in Western art because it portrays the body of a French Revolutionary leader, slumped in the bath-tub in which he was slain – one of the first victims in history to be portrayed akin to a photograph. “For Yan-Pei Ming, the painting by David is essential to his reflection because it is one of the rare paintings where the relevance of the subject coincides with the relevance of the art work,” says the exhibition’s curator, Francesco Bonami. “History and art history intertwine.”
When in 2009, Yan-Pei Ming was invited to exhibit within the Louvre, he again thought about the history of art with an oversized representation of the Mona Lisa. “It was simply panoramic and contributed a little bit to her mystery,” he says of ‘The Funeral of Mona Lisa’.
More than providing a commentary on history, Yan-Pei Ming’s greatest statement is made through who exactly he decides to paint. “A choice was made that represents my point of view and my knowledge,” he says of those portraits he selected for ‘Painting the History.’ Bonami surmises Yan-Pei Ming’s mission: “History becomes His-Story”.
‘Painting the History’ at QMA Gallery, Doha, Qatar
12 October 2012 -12 January, 2013
What is your definition of luxury?
Freedom. The only luxury for me is in my studio.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
My studio in Dijon.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
In my studio.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A blank canvas.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
Your signature works are painted portraits and you have previously talked of the importance of this genre in the digital age. What is the role of painted portraiture now and what was it before?
The portrait is essential to record the history of man. It reveals both the epoch and another humanity. Also, portraiture is a mirror of the present day, of epochs and of centuries. It’s like an art that is registered. Portraits are an essential part of art and of understanding humanity. They’re mirrors of our world.
How do you choose who to paint?
My work is about the history of man and about the evolution of man, as well as on our epoch. For my exhibition in Doha I did 150 portraits. It’s impossible to paint everyone, it’s too much work. I made a selection of 150. A choice was made that represents my point of view and my knowledge. Obviously I spoke with the curator. We talked, we made changes. But there’s a coherency in my choice.
And how do you choose how to paint someone?
All the images that I use to paint from I find on the internet. I make a choice of images and then a sort of interpretation. It’s something subjective whether I make them joyful or something more serious.
Painting the History consists of portraits of influential figures of the Arab world and also of assassinated world leaders. What inspired these series? What was the brief from QMA?
Sheikha Mayassa asked me to do an exhibition in Doha. Incredibly, she didn’t give a theme but instead give me carte blanche. It was me who imagined this exhibition. To do this, I took the time to learn. This is not a project about the Arab revolution. It’s more about the evolution of identity and of the people who contributed to the evolution in the Arab mentality. It’s about history. There are three parts to the exhibition: the history of the Arab world, the history of art and the history of the world. With those three things, it’s really superb.
For the first time you have added an interactive element to your work with this exhibition…
We did something incredible. Opposite each of the 150 portraits there is a QR code that one can can with the iPhone, iPad or Blackberry. And then you have a direct link to the Wikipedia page of the person in the portrait. If there is someone you don’t recognise, you will know all about them using the link. It adds the dimension of learning to the exhibition and is more connected to young people.
What is the relevance of painted portraiture in the digital age?
What is the news? Contemporary history. Today we look at it one way but one day we will look from the perspective of a different world. When one does a portrait it is a permanent image. At the same time, if we see someone on television or on the internet or in a newspaper, this is a sort of ephemeral image. A portrait is a decision made by the artist. They decide on the image.
You are often categorised with other contemporary Chinese artists but you live and work in France, speak French, and even participated in the French pavilion at he Shanghai Expo in 2010. How does your Chinese-French heritage inform your work?
I can be described in two ways. A Chinese painter naturalised in France. Or one can say a French painter of Chinese origin. My name Yan-Pei Ming gives away my origin and I look Chinese. But you cannot say that I am “made in China”. I want to be known as an artist without frontiers and whose work doesn’t indicate a nationality. My origins are Chinese but I am predominantly French. I am an artist who lives in France and who works in France. I consider France my home.
You work with limited colour and often monochromatic shades. What significance does your use of colour have?
There are several reasons that I paint in monochrome. When I was very young I did portraits in only black and white. And then when I started the Ecole des Beaux Art in Dijon, there was a professor who told me that portraits must use colour. I thought, “This is interesting”! Now, the absence of colour means I avoid comparisons to Old Masters. I choose not to paint with colour because I prefer to paint with light.
You work with mega dealer David Zwirner and are sold at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. To what extent are you commercially minded?
Not at all. My work is never about that. I think the auction house sales room are like a credit rating agency for me. They simply show the health of the finance markets. Unfortunately today in schools, the students are being taught only how to make money. It’s an intellectual industry. They are formatted. This is a dramatic change.
In 2009 you were invited to exhibit inside the Louvre, which resulted in The Funeral of Mona Lisa. How did you approach that? Why the Mona Lisa? What did it mean to you to work for the Louvre?
When we visit the Louvre, artists never even dream of exhibiting there. We imagine of exhibiting in the Centre Pompidou, the Tate Modern, and MoMA New York. When my chance came, I did everything possible to produce a very strong exhibition. I had the extraordinary idea to paint the shadow of Mona Lisa like a projection or a projected film. I called the The Funeral of Mona Lisa, not the burial, because a funeral is a celebration of a life. It was simply panoramic and contributed a little bit to her mystery. The result was superb and very emotional for me, my family and for the visitors.