A Walk between Dream and Reality
Exploring Cheng Yajie’s World of Fantasies
At our age featured by the rapid globalization and the clashing of civilizations, an artist can never stop being innovative if he/she wants to be powerful in revealing the pulse of the time. Only a few artists managed to have this stamina of creations, and Singapore-based Chinese artist Cheng Yajie is no doubt one of them. He started from the Socialist Realism and arrived at Fantastic Realism. In his works, visual experiences melt into fantastic imaginations, and the charm of our age is given a full play.
Cheng learned art first in his childhood, and later at an art school and the Tianjin Academy of Arts. In his college years, he received training in the skills to depict colors, lights, shadows and space. His works of the time could all be labeled as Socialism Realism. An oil painting he created in 1984, titled "Countless Sands," was given the first prize at the Tianjin University Students' Art Contest, and his "Silent Rain" (1985) also won a prize at the Sixth National Art Contest. His works in the period exhibited remarkable skills in depicting the reality. Apparently, Cheng was not the only one who followed the path of Realism. Art, drama, literature and music in China were all dominated by the Socialist Realism. To understand Cheng's art, one has to know that a whole generation was earmarked with their used-to-be passion for arts from the former Soviet Union. For instance, songs from the neighbouring giant, like the "Night in Moscow's Suburbs," were the favourite of many people in China at one time.
While abiding by the mainstream, Cheng demonstrated his strength in thinking at a young age. His oil painting titled "Pigeon Comes Back" depicted a pigeon bringing a letter to a village girl. It was humane and touching. When it was sent for the World University Students' Art Exhibition in Japan, the executive chairwoman of the organizing committee was moved to tears and she sent someone to China to buy the painting. Another work of his, titled "The Spring," (1985) was also bought by a Japanese collector when it traveled to Japan for the International Youth Festival. These successes didn't hinder Cheng from further innovations, and his style changed when he began to read Hegel, Socrates and Floyd in the 1980s. It was in as early as 1983 that his art had the first blossom of fantasies. In his painting “Silver Flowers,” the artist converted the act of wrestling into dream-like flowers. Also in the 1980s, Chinese artists became fascinated at American artist Andrew Wyeth as soon as they got to know his realistic paintings about the countryside. Under his influence, a generation of artists wrote their names onto the contemporary Chinese art history, including Luo Zhongli, He Duoling and Zhang Yimou. Cheng was also amazed at the human touch of Wyeth’s works, but he wanted more: He wanted to have a look at the best works of Western art, but those coarsely printed in China unanimously had the colour of soy sauce.
Chinese art scene saw an earthquake in the mid 1980s when the young avant-gardes emerged. At the end of the movement, Cheng traveled to Japan and studied oil paintings there, but he was soon disappointed and made his way to Russia in 1991. In those worldly famous Russian museums, he wandered before works of artists who had been loved by millions of people in China, such as those of Suricov and Repin. Then he traveled further around Europe.
In Vienna he met Wolfgang Hutter, one of the co-founders of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, and became his student. At the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna, where Hutter teaches, Cheng studied oil painting from its beginning. He got to know the tricks of European artists in the last millennium, such as how to produce colors and canvas, and how to make a painting appear thinner. He also came to believe that a good artist should first of all have great skills, abundant knowledge and rich experiences of life before he creates a dream-like world with the essence of the realistic one. Cheng’s
efforts led to his success at the SHEBA, the renowned European art contest, in 1994. His painting “My Baby,” with Hutter as the tutor, was widely applauded at the event, and Cheng became the first Chinese to have his name in a major European art contest.
Hutter said: “a master observes what is common in the life, shows it from an angle that hardly anyone else is able to notice, and makes it a fantastic, fresh new world. This is what the word `style’ means.” While learning from the teacher, Cheng soon established his own style. His painting “Horizon” was chosen by the Christie’s for its auction of Chinese art in Hong Kong in 1994.
Cheng traveled a lot to find sources of his fantasies. His works of Fantastic Realism, such as “The Sea” and “Spring of Life,” demonstrated his understanding of the history, the nature and the cultures. The toys, the masks, the butterflies and the clouds in his picture have all been endowed with a thought-provoking power. Cheng believes that art is not to confuse its audience, but to inspire them. Walking across the border of dream and reality in his casual way, Cheng is the one professional “dream-maker” of our time.
The author is the Board President of the Artron, Inc., which is allegedly the largest and most prestigious art printing company in China.