Monday, May 4, 2009

Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa, Yan Pei-Ming at the Louvre

The fact that he paints in grey was enough to get my attention and to draw me like a lemming to Yan Pei-Ming’s exhibition of five monumental grey paintings currently at the Louvre. Hung in the galleries devoted to the largest French nineteenth-century canvases and opposite the Salle des Etats, home to a number of masterpieces of Italian Renaissance painting, including the Mona Lisa. On reflection, it is still the grey and the paint that are the most interesting and endlessly fascinating aspects of Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa.

A tear strained Mona Lisa is the centerpiece of the five huge canvases. On either side of her sit battlefields of skulls, and in turn, on either side of them, a blown up image of the still living artist with his eyes closed on a mortuary examination table, and at the other, his deceased father with eyes open on his death bed. They are surrounded by the excesses of the Louvre collection: the grandest, most magnificent nineteenth century French paintings, including the exquisite and seductive figure of Ingres’ Odalisque (1814), discretely placed in the corner. The stark, cool paintings discourse on some of the hottest themes in contemporary art: the blurring of distinctions between public and private, the interweaving of past and present, then and now, fiction and fact, the representation of memory and history, and so on. These discussions are interesting enough, but to my mind, they don’t say anything that hasn’t been said elsewhere.

For me, these thematic concerns were somewhat secondary to the intense luminosity of five soaring contemporary paintings in the midst of the maroon and gold spendors of the Denon wing. In Yan Pei-Ming’s world, the excess is transposed to the canvas itself: the confident, determined, even aggressive brushstrokes are applied quickly and thickly. The excess paint coagulates and runs off the surface such that it reaches out to us. In the midst of the legends, fantasies and the hermetically sealed narrative worlds of David, Ingres, Géricault and Delacroix, the reality of Yan Pei Ming’s paintings are exaggerated by the dense materiality of paint. The rich painted surfaces are thickly textured, indulgent, completely sumptuous, and yet, they are lugubrious. When I stood before the Mona Lisa I could feel the heaving and howling of professional mourners as they followed the painting, the dead Mona Lisa, through the streets of Rome, veiled, wailing to underline the devastation of someone else’s grief. The intensity of the paint, and its arousal of the senses tugged at my heart as I stood before these paintings. Again, it’s not what is represented in the paintings, it is the stuff of paint itself.

Yan Pei-Ming often paints in grey – his critics and commentators call it sombre. On the contrary, his grey is brilliant. He explains that the grey is only in these paintings because white cannot otherwise exist. The color of mourning in China is white, but we will not see it if it is not supported by grey. I find this fascinating because it reminds me of the meeting of East and Western modernism in Yan Pei Ming’s art. The Mona Lisa? She and her brother David in the Accademia dell’Arte in Florence are the icons par excellence of Western art. Curiously, so is grey paint. Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, Agnes Martin, and the list goes on, the big names of postwar Western modernist painting, either paint with a predominantly grey palette, or they turn to grey in their quest for the truth of painting, a truth that resonates with the ambiguity, contradiction and self-effacement of grey paint. Surely, paintings such as Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa is involved in these kinds of questions as well? Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the death of painting at stake in Yan Pei-Ming’s grey, it’s the iteration of the essence of painting.

With their glowing luminosity, these works in grey literally shine a light on the deep red walls of the Louvre, walls that signal reverence, excess, wealth, beauty, in effect, the sublime magnificence, of this institution’s collection. In the beam of Yan Pei-Ming’s monumental canvases, the great paintings come alive. Standing in the midst of Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa it is as though the paintings are designed to the illuminate the stage on which the ordinary and the contemporary are played out on a Friday night in Paris. They bring the high-mindedness of 16th century painting into the spotlight of the present.

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