Chen Yifei

Painter and film-maker who became the Chinese Martha Stewart

When the history of post-Mao China is finally written, it will include a single painting: Twin Bridge (Shuang qiao) - Memory of My Country, presented by Armand Hammer to China's Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping in November 1983. On the face of it a faintly slushy representation of a river scene in Zhouzhuang, the picture was actually deeply subversive. It harked back to a time in Chinese art - to a China - that predated the Socialist Realism ordained by Deng as the official state school of painting. Worse, Twin Bridge was the work of that same school's one-time star, recently emigrated to America: Chen Yifei.

Chen Yifei, artist, film director and entrepreneur: born Ningbo, China 1946; twice married (two sons); died Shanghai 10 April 2005.

When the history of post-Mao China is finally written, it will include a single painting: Twin Bridge (Shuang qiao) - Memory of My Country, presented by Armand Hammer to China's Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping in November 1983. On the face of it a faintly slushy representation of a river scene in Zhouzhuang, the picture was actually deeply subversive. It harked back to a time in Chinese art - to a China - that predated the Socialist Realism ordained by Deng as the official state school of painting. Worse, Twin Bridge was the work of that same school's one-time star, recently emigrated to America: Chen Yifei.

Until his departure for New York in 1980, Chen had been the poster-boy of Chinese painting. Graduating from the government art academy in Shanghai in 1965, he was admitted to the Shanghai Institute of Painters at the unheard- of age of 19. Honoured with the title of Revolutionary Socialist Artist, Chen spent the following 10 years turning out portraits of Chairman Mao. When, rarely, he was allowed to vary his subject from the Great Helmsman, he was set to painting scenes from revolutionary history: epic canvases with titles like The Seizing of the Presidential Palace (1971), hung in great halls around China.

Although now largely forgotten, these works established Chen as the leading Chinese painter of his day. This, predictably, led to his being denounced for recidivist tendencies and banished for a period to work in the rice fields. Officially purged, Chen took over the painting department at his old art school in 1972, a position he still held when the Cultural Revolution began to subside in the late 1970s.

The relative freedoms of this period marked a change in Chen's painting. His picture Looking at History from My Space (1979) tested the post-Maoist waters by suggesting that art might be a personal, rather than communal, thing. Looking at History also did it what said, concentrating on bourgeois scenes from China's pre-revolutionary past. It is a measure of Chen's personal stature that he not only survived this experiment, but was given leave to study at New York's Hunter College the following year.

It is hard, in artistic terms, to imagine two cities more different than the Shanghai of Deng Xiaoping and the New York of Andy Warhol. Befuddled by this change, Chen turned his back on Manhattan's contemporary art scene. Instead, he found solace in old-fashioned American Realism: in grafting the cinematic loneliness of Edward Hopper and go-west confidence of the Hudson River School on to his own Chinese tractor- factory style. The resulting hybrid - Chen dubbed it "Romantic Realism" - was ridiculed by his fellow artists and critics alike.

Its apparently anti-Communist blend of American-ness and stylistic reaction struck a nerve with the elderly Armand Hammer, however. Reasoning that a country that had elected Ronald Reagan President might be ready for a return to Realism, the chairman of Occidental Petroleum gave Chen a one-man show at his Hammer Gallery in October 1983. One of the pictures, Two Bridges, Hammer bought for himself: it was given to Deng on a visit to Beijing the following month. The rest went to collectors who, like Hammer, were rich and right-wing.

A decade on, they were still buying. In 1992, Chen's Lingering Melodies at Xunyang sold at auction at Sotheby's for $175,000. Five years later, Poppy went for $500,000 - still the highest price paid for the work of a living Chinese artist. In London, Chen was represented by the commercially minded Marlborough Gallery, who held moderately successful shows of his work in 1997 and 2001.

For all this, Chen's legacy is unlikely to be artistic. His overwrought style of painting was interesting more for its place in history than for its place in art history. It was the lessons in capitalism Chen learned during his 20 years in America that bore real fruit. Realising that his artistic reputation could be leveraged into something bigger, he went back to China and reinvented himself as a one-man aesthetic brand. His duty, Chen said, was "to provide beauty for the people", and he set about doing so with vim.

In 1999, he launched a clothing label called Layefe, described by one fashion writer as "Banana-Republic-meets-People's-Republic". It now has 167 stores across China. This was followed in 2000 by a home furnishings line with its flagship store in Shanghai's super-hip Xintiandi district, and then by what is very probably the world's largest fashion magazine: the 400-page, two-kilo Vision, sponsored, curiously, by the Communist Youth League. Recently, Chen and his son, Chen Ling, opened a modelling agency, scoring a coup by signing up 2002's Miss China. Altogether, the various arms of the Yifei empire turned over $25m in 2003. "When I came home, there were one billion people in China living without any real sense of life style," said Chen. That this has changed is due largely to him.

It will be sad if Chen is remembered merely as a Chinese Martha Stewart, however. If his paintings were dubious, the films he made later in life were not. One, Evening Liaison, was placed in the "Certain Regard" class at Cannes in 1995. Chen was working on his fourth film, The Barber, at the time of his death. It will be completed by the eminent director Ng See-Yuen.

Charles Darwent



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