Capturing the spirit of Shanghai in paint
SHANGHAI is such an abstract word, yet all too profound to embody everything.
Even for a veteran artist, it is almost mission impossible to create a themed painting under “Shanghai.” Frankly, the bigger the theme, actually the harder the rendering.
But veteran local artist Wang Jiafang has made it.
Wang spent nearly 40 days standing on a scaffold to implement a daunting piece 7.5 meter long and 5.5 meter wide, titled “Shanghai.”
Born in the city’s Jiading District, Wang graduated from the art department at East China Normal University in 1997. He rose to fame through a series of traditional landscape paintings.
But this time, the artist chose a subject that he seldom painted before brushstrokes–architecture.
“Last June, I received a commission from the local government for the creation of a large-scaled painting ‘Shanghai,’ reflecting the history, culture, economics and arts of the city,” Wang said.
At first, Wang was excited about the special honor, however on second thoughts, he was immediately aware of the challenge and the pressure.
“Because I didn’t have the least idea of what to paint and how to paint to reflect Shanghai, not to mention about its past, present and future,” he said, “There was even a moment that I was uncertain whether a piece of painting could accomplish this task.”
But as someone born in Shanghai, the artist quickly focused his eyes on shikumen, the traditional Shanghainese architectural style
Combining Western and Chinese elements, shikumen first appeared in the 1860s. At the height of their popularity there were 900 shikumen-style buildings in the city, comprising nearly 60 percent of its total housing stock.
In fact, shikumen is the “soul” in this painting.
The daunting work features red shikumen architecture, plane trees with a blurred backdrop of the skyscrapers in Pudong.
“Now I can’t recall how many sketches and adjustments I have made on this painting work,” he said, “Although it took me 40 days to complete, I did tons of research work before I started to paint.”
Wang read a lot of historical materials to study small details such as the door frames of shikumen architecture in different historical periods.
Of course, shikumen in Shanghai is also stamped with its “Red DNA” because the first, second and fourth congresses of the Communist Party of China were held there.
On rice paper, Wang paints the story of “Shanghai” in four parts: the old, new and modern styles of shikumen and the soaring heights of Lujiazui in Pudong.
“Whoever sees this painting, he could immediately tell that this is Shanghai, only Shanghai,” Wang said. “And this could only be the scene in Shanghai.”
The painting has not only been well received by the authorities, but also the art community as well.
“As an artist, I feel quite proud for the work,” he said, “I hope the painting will be an icon for this amazing metropolis in the future.”
What’s the biggest challenge for this work?
At the infant stage of its creation, it was how to find the right concrete subject to reflect the abstract word of Shanghai.
During the creation period, it was how to balance myself standing and painting on a scaffold, a rather tough job both spiritually and physically.
How did it feel standing on a scaffold to paint?
Just imagine, the work is 5.5 meters high! It can’t be done without a scaffold. Every brushstroke should be carefully considered in my mind before I paint, as no mistake could be made on the rice paper.
I even stood on a lift vehicle with a moving stretching platform where I was able to use a specially made big brush for the final coloring on the painting that spread on the ground.
Since it is a government commissioned work, were there any strict rules for the work?
If I say no, it would not be true. Because the painting will be displayed in the room for diplomatic meetings at Xijiao State Guest Hotel, so every small detail should be considered. For example, it was better not to have windows or trees over the head of the leaders sitting in front of the work. Also striking colors in the same area should be avoided.
Why did you choose autumn rather than other seasons in this work?
In my eyes, autumn in Shanghai is so beautiful.
At first sight, this work seems visually different from those stereotype ink-wash paintings. What kind of technique did you apply in the work?
Perhaps this is my advantage, I studied various art forms at the university such as canvas and print. I wanted to enrich the hues in the work, so I applied many colors with almost 20 layers. But don’t be mistaken, all these colors are pure traditional mineral colors, without any acrylics.
In regard to the tableau, I used a front horizontal angle filled with a spatial depth, reminiscent of the wide-angle lens in a movie scene.
Do you think this work represent the climax in your art career?
I feel quite accomplished for this work, but I don’t think it is the climax in my art path. Based on the confidence accumulated from this painting, I plan to paint the same subject of Shanghai in spring, winter and summer of the same size.
Who is your favorite artist, and why?
Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) is my favorite artist, because his work used the Western art language while at the same time inherited the oriental spirit. Another is Egon Shiele (1890-1918).
Apart from painting, do you have other hobbies?
I like traveling.
Every year, I travel a lot around the world. Next week, I will go to Finland with my wife to see the aurora polaris. Hope we can see it!
This painting is permanently displayed at Xijiao State Guest Hotel for diplomatic meetings, but it is not convenient for those who want to appreciate the painting, is it a regret for you?
A bit regret, because it is my interpretation and expression toward Shanghai’s past, present and future.
Now I am considering how to develop its art derivatives that could be appreciated by more people.
Do you have any exhibition in 2019?
I will have an exhibition featuring several thousand name cards that I have collected during my trips in the past decades. But don’t think these name cards are those familiar ones, because I painted my sketches on its back. Moreover, I asked for a postmark on the card at the post-office at each tourist destination. This is my own travel diary, visually of course!