Chen Junde read French literature and coveted impressionistic paintings during the dark days of the "cultural revolution. "The artist, who now chairs the Shanghai Oil Painting Committee, has endured to become one of China's foremost landscape painters.
At a time when art in China was decidedly utilitarian and Soviet-style realism held sway, Shanghai-born artist Chen Junde was secretly admiring the work of European impressionists.
Now in his sixth decade, Chen credits that "youthful rebellion" for the trajectory his career has taken. As chairman of the Shanghai Oil Painting Committee, he is among a handful of painters from China with the "ability to give a full interpretation of post-Western impressionism. "Chen came of age as an artist during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), when socialist realism was the dominant painting style. While his peers were mastering the Russian style, Chen followed his heart, pouring over in books on impressionism.
"Ilya Repin once said that no master ever came out of an art academy, and I have to agree," says Chen, a graduate of the art department at Shanghai Theater Academy.
"My teachers assigned so many line drawings and portraits," he recalls. "I was totally fed up.I questioned why we were sticking to the Russian style, since the Slavic culture differs so much from the Chinese culture."
What captured Chen's imagination instead was the romantic world of the impressionists, a world filled with light and shadow and softness.
The characters in the literature he read -French writer Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe high among them -encouraged him to pursue his belief in art. If he couldn't paint at school, then he would do so at home. If no one would teach him about European art and literature, then the school library would become his haven. Naturally, keeping secrets at the time was extremely difficult, and Chen's paint-spattered clothes soon gave him away.
"That's why I was assigned to the army upon graduation to receive more 'education,'" he says. Much to his surprise, however, the army turned out to be something of an artistic refuge.
"On my first day, an officer asked me to paint a series of landscapes for a big conference room," he recalls.
That assignment was carried out in the countryside, where Chen spent three months painting impressionistic landscapes.
Since then, his work has centered on changes in light or season. His subjects are concrete and realistic, but imbued with carefree, extroverted brushstrokes.
Chen's diaphanous brushwork captures the trembling leaves and shimmering water.
In the late 1980s,Chen rose to fame in Hong Kong, and one of his paintings sold for about US$100,000.In 1999,the French government invited him to spend half a year in Paris.
"It was in Paris that I began to understand why artists say, 'Burn the Louvre,'" he says. "One feels hopeless standing in front of the masterpieces, knowing you can never surpass them."
Chen soldiered on, visiting the major museums and galleries in Paris. At Van Gogh's house, he had a revelation: "I thought I was familiar with his studio: that sunny, neat room in his paintings. The actual room was dark and dank. It was when I saw the room that I realized that Van Gogh was painting the sunshine in his heart." Chen empathized with Van Gogh, having once lived in a small damp apartment himself.
This month, the artist travels to South Africa for a solo exhibition.
(eastday.com June 25, 2002)