YAN PEI-MING, Yan Pei-Ming: Blue Portrait of the Artist, 2016, oil on canvas, 50 × 50 cm. Courtesy MDC Hong Kong. 

YAN PEI-MING, Young Egon Schiele with Palette, 2016, oil on canvas, 130 × 100 cm. Courtesy MDC Hong Kong. 

It Takes a Lifetime to Become Young

Yan Pei-Ming

Massimo de Carlo, Hong Kong
Hong Kong China France

Despite concerns of a slowdown in the art market, international dealers continue to be drawn to Hong Kong’s potential as an arts hub. Having taken up a space in the iconic Pedder Building, the Milan-based gallerist Massimo De Carlo is the latest to set up shop in the city. Fittingly, the gallery inaugurated its third space (the other two being in Milan and London), during Hong Kong’s art week extravaganza in March, with a solo exhibition by the eminent Shanghai-born painter Yan Pei-Ming, entitled “It Takes a Lifetime to Become Young.” Yan, who has been based between Dijon and Paris since the early 1980s, has collaborated with Massimo de Carlo for almost 20 years and has exhibited at both its Milan and London galleries. This is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong.

Yan is best known for his larger-than-life portraits, which feature subjects ranging from political figures and celebrities—such as Mao Zedong, Barack Obama and Pope John Paul II—to soldiers, prostitutes and orphans. Often provocative and subversive, these works, at heart, reference broader political and social issues. His latest exhibition at Massimo de Carlo, in contrast, offers a more intimate and introspective view into Yan’s personal realm. Showcasing 12 recent oil-on-canvas works, all from 2016, “It Takes a Lifetime to Become Young” features master painters that have inspired Yan, including Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele, Frieda Kahlo, Willem de Kooning, Lucian Freud and Jackson Pollock. Based on archival photographs and extensive research, the portraits portray these artists in the early years of their lives, as children and teenagers, innocent and unknowing of their future paths to greatness.

Among this display of portraits, Yan chose to add one self-portrait. Painted in deep, saturated shades of blue and forcefully executed with dynamic, swift brushstrokes, Yan Pei-Ming: Blue Portrait of the Artist, depicts Yan as he is today. While small in size (50 centimeters in width), the image is so emotionally charged that it has a startling presence. Self-portraiture is a recurrent theme in the artist’s repertoire, as a means to deal with notions of identity and the passing of time. Expanding upon this concept, Yan explained in an interview on the day of his exhibition’s opening that he wanted to further explore the cycle of history by going back in time. Juxtaposed next to his self-portrait is the over-one-meter-tall Young Egon Schiele with Palette. Painted in deep purple and brown using bold, thick brushstrokes, Schiele is portrayed as a shy, gawky adolescent, gazing sideways with incisive eyes.

Moving clockwise around the room, viewers encounter the triptych Blue, Red and Black Young Picasso, where each canvas is painted in a corresponding color referenced in the work title. Representing Picasso’s different artistic periods, they are rendered with fast sweeps of the brush that allow excess paint to drip down parts of the canvas, creating an effect whereby the images appear to fade into near-abstraction upon closer view. Each painting depicts the young Picasso slouched in a chair, his head tilted to one side, but eyes looking face-on with a resolute expression and air of mischief. The title of the exhibition is a quote by Picasso himself, making Yan’s reflection on youth and coming of age in this work all the more poignant.

In the next room of the gallery, Andy Warhol is portrayed in four portraits, from a chubby toddler painted in a monochrome palette (Grey Young Andy Warhol) to a cherubic adolescent in shades of blue (Blue Young Andy Warhol). The influential and radical figure that Warhol was to become in later years is far removed from these portraits of his younger self.


YAN PEI-MING, Blue, Red and Black Young Picasso, 2016, oil on canvas, 150 × 100 cm each. Courtesy MDC Hong Kong.

On the adjacent wall is a portrait of another heavyweight from the New York art world, entitled Young Jackson Pollock Feeding the Ducks and Hens. Pollock is shown as being in deep concentration as he stirs a bowl of feed for the (barely recognizable) birds in front of him. Rendered in white, while the rest of the scene is painted in layers of dark blue, green and black, Yan conveys the naivety and innocence of Pollock’s childhood, before his fall into alcoholism as a teenager would plague him throughout his life.   

In viewing this exhibition, I found myself immersed in Yan’s personal world of contemplation and sensitive observation. By portraying his idols in their childhood, Yan presents a sense of  candor and melancholy that invites viewers to reflect upon the artists as individuals, and not just as influential masters. Departing from past works that expose darker aspects of contemporary realities, Yan succeeds in creating a refreshing interpretation of the classical portrait-painting tradition in his latest body of work. As Yan is known for having a strong existential bent—he previously has painted himself dying—I left the gallery envisioning what a portrait of young Yan Pei-Ming might look like.

YAN PEI-MINGYoung Jackson Pollock Feeding the Ducks and Hens, 2016, oil on canvas, 100 × 130 cm. Courtesy MDC Hong Kong.

“It Takes a Lifetime to Become Young” is on view at Massimo de Carlo, Hong Kong, until May 22, 2016.