Chen Shaomei / 陳少梅 (1909-1954)
Chen Shaomei, born in Hengshan (in Hunan Province in China), was an important artist in the period just before the the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. At the age of 17, Chen had already established a reputation for himself in the local arts scene, and he became very popular during his own lifetime, and revered after his death.
Despite the brevity of Chen's life, he was a prolific artist who experimented in many styles and techniques not previously common in Chinese painting. His work in landscape and portrait paintings has left behind him an impressive legacy, one that is highly appreciated in China today.
Let me begin with a disclaimer — I am not at all an expert in Chinese art. In fact, I am not an expert in any of the visual arts, and my knowledge of painting is of a non-technical nature. I do, however, know what I like, and Chen's painting is amongst the works that I find most moving. So what follows is an amateur's summary of what is appealing about Chen's work, without any technical jargon to describe the paintings.
Three things strike me about Chen's art. First, I find a sense of movement in much of what he does. There are, in most of his paintings, some elements that create the feel of movement. Often, it is a skiff upon a lake, or a person (or persons) walking along a path, or perhaps the flow of water. (And water is everywhere in his work.) It makes for an active, alive feeling to Chen's paintings, rather than a presentation of a static image.
The second thing that jumps out at me in Chen's work is that there is a system of veiling and screening to it that really intrigues. I know that this seems to be stating something that is typical in much of Chinese painting, but it seems to me to be an especially prominent feature of Chen's art. He uses clouds and mists to hide significant parts of the scenery, which works to make the viewer sort of "fill in the gaps" in his or her own mind. In this way, appreciation of his paintings becomes an active process. (And, having visited Hunan, this seems to me to be a natural way that Chen might have viewed the world. The swirling mists always hide some magnificent scenery when you visit the mountains in Hunan, only opening up to offer brief glimpses at a time.)
The final feature of Chen's work that impresses me is the interaction between humans and their natural surroundings in the paintings. Very often, people appear in the pictures, often shown to be tiny in comparison to the grandeur around them. Again, this is a common feature in Chinese art. But in Chen's paintings, I find more of a feeling of engagement between humans and the natural world, rather than just seeing the humans inserted into the landscape (and thus highlighting their insignificance). In many of Chen's compositions, the figures seem to direct the viewer's attention — not so much toward a particular object to be viewed, but directing the proper response to the view offered.
The detail in Chen's work is exquisite, and the blend of colors, space, and blank patches works marvelously. Perhaps someone with more technical knowledge than I possess would see it all very differently, but these are the features I find most striking in all of Chen's work that I have viewed.
©2010 Shelly Bryant