Yan Pei-Ming – a bridge between Europe and China



YAN Pei-Ming may be considered to belong to a certain « French school » of Chinese Contemporary art which includes artists like Wang Du and Chen Zhen. Born in the slums of Shanghai, Yan Pei Ming is today one of the world’s most highly regarded contemporary painters. His work is currently on show at the Contemporary Art Centre of Malaga in Spain in an exhibition entitled No Comment bringing together 27 large format paintings (until June 14, 2015).

Ming, as he likes to call himself, grew up under the Cultural Revolution and started painting in a Soviet realist style at an early age. “I started painting at age 13, doing large scale propaganda portraits of soldiers, workers and of course Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman”. Having been blocked from participating in the competitive examination for entrance to a Chinese art school, he arrived in Paris in 1980 aged just 20 with no money and not speaking a word of French. With the help a friend of a friend of his father, he enrolled at the Dijon School of Fine Arts, and then, in 1988/89 he studied at the Paris Institute of Advanced Fine Arts Studies. He subsequently accepted a residency at the Villa Medici at the Académie de France in Rome from (1993-1994).

Ming’s large paintings began to catch the public’s attention in the early 2000s when he was mostly painting monumental works in series using a two-color technique (black and white, gray and white, or red and white). The epic size of his canvases, painted with broad brush strokes using a thick paste-like paint, amplifies the emotional impact of his works. His subjects are distinctly figurative, as Ming attempts to understand our age via a series of portraits of political and religious leaders (including former French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, US President, Barack Obama, Mao Zedong, Buddha, Pope John Paul II).

Success… via Mao

Ming’s subjects – anonymous people as well as powerful and internationally recognizable leaders – are often a little blurred by his strong brushstrokes and dripping paint. His most famous series of portraits is that of China’s former communist leader Mao Zedong, emblem of a spiritual father and of a deserted country. Ming has painted Mao many times and, as he confesses somewhat mischievously: “I started my career making propaganda for Mao and then Mao’s face began to work as propaganda for me!”. Indeed it was his Mao portraits that generated a very substantial increase in his auction prices when the Chinese Contemporary art market was in euphoric spirits (as of 2005). His first result above the million-dollar threshold rewarded a large red portrait of Mao with a red background. The work fetched $1.4m, twice the initial estimate (Mao, 2000, 180 x 200 cm, Sotheby’s New York). The following year, three other red portraits of Mao fetched above the million line in New York and Taiwan, but his prices considerably diminished after the speculative excesses of the years 2007-2008 when the international scramble for Chinese Contemporary art effectively skewed his prices. Nowadays Ming’s Mao portraits fetch on average half a million dollars less on the auction market. The artist seems aware of the excesses of the market: “The Chinese are interested in my work more from a speculative point of view. I am wary of this. Today in China, money has become the only religion.”
Ming’s market is currently in a phase of stabilization with buyers behaving much more cautiously and no longer pushing up prices. His large oil paintings can now be acquired for less than $100,000, and his charcoal drawings fetch around $10,000. The attentive buyer can also pick up prints from his Icons series (editions of 75) for less than $3,000. Indeed, it would appear to be an opportune moment to buy, especially since the artist has joined a number of very prestigious international galleries, including David Zwirner (New York), Massimo De Carlo (Milan) and Thaddaeus Ropac (Paris, Salzburg).