The Franco-Chinese painter says rejection turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him
COPING AND COPYING I was born in 1960 in a Shanghai temple, which was demolished a few years ago. My father worked in an abattoir and my mum in a factory. We were a poor but reasonably happy, simple family. At school, I was known as the best art student. The Cultural Revolution was on but my life as a student was not complicated at all. I loved painting and that was my main focus. At that time, we had to go to propaganda class. Those who could draw well would be chosen to draw propaganda pictures for the school. I was one of them. I drew people like Mao Zedong and Red Guards, which was a piece of cake. It was just a matter of copying and I usually did it well.
THE BUMPY BIT I have always stuttered since I was a child. Speaking is not my strength and I prefer solitude. In art, I have found a language to express myself properly. I had always wanted to go to art school. When I was 18, I tried to get into the Shanghai Art and Design Academy but was rejected because of my stutter. I was disappointed, but did not lose hope. When the going gets tough, a man with a creative mind can find a way out, gather his energy and survive. At that age, I already reckoned that the life of an artist was either smooth sailing at the beginning and bumpy later, or the other way round. As it turned out, mine is the latter.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION I had an uncle living in Paris. So I joined him there in 1980 to start anew. I had wanted to go to the National School of Fine Arts in Paris but I got rejected again. I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, my uncle, who was very nice to me, found me a job in Dijon. It was to wash dishes in a Chinese restaurant run by a Taiwanese family. Unlike the moneyed Chinese students in the West today – whose parents are either government officials or rich businessmen – I came to France penniless. I washed dishes in the restaurant in the evening and went to a French language school during the day. I was pleased to be able to earn a living and study at the same time. When my French got better, a year later, I was able to get out of the kitchen and became a waiter. I also started going to the art school of Dijon, where I spent five of the best years of my life. Our teachers did not teach us how to draw, but they guided us to think about why we wanted to make a painting and what we tried to express. It was a period when I found and built up my own identity.
MAO LOOK AT ME In 1987, I began to do epic-sized portraits executed in either black and white or white and red. One man I portrayed was old Mao. I always see him as a great statesman and a great man of letters. Before I left China, I used to paint him often, so painting him in France was a continuation of what I had been doing. But there was another reason why I chose Mao. At the time, no one in France knew Yan Peiming but everyone knew Mao Zedong. So painting Mao was a sort of strategy to promote myself as a painter. The strategy panned out well and people began to notice me. In 1991, I held my first solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou (in Paris).
THE DARK SIDE OF LIFE I paint in black and white as a way to keep my identity as an artist intact. All these great painters before me painted in different colours. If I did likewise, I would feel like I was under their influence; I want to avoid being in their shadow. The monochrome is also a reflection of my pessimistic side. The world is not wonderful. I have no time for painting beautiful, happy things. I prefer portraying pain and suffering, which is why my exhibition, “Help!” (which has just finished at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, in Paris), draws inspiration from events such as the war in Libya.
BACK WITH A VENGEANCE I felt like China had long forgotten me since I got rejected by the Shanghai art school. But I got the chance to return in 2005, for my first solo exhibition (in Shanghai). In the preface of the exhibition catalogue, I said I wanted to be the most recognised and most influential artist in the world. As an artist, you need to set a goal to motivate yourself and fill the void of life with something. I have gained some recognition since then but I don’t think I have achieved success yet. In fact, I don’t know what success means.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PICASSO When (then French president Nicolas) Sarkozy visited China in 2007, I was invited to accompany him as an artist. I tagged along and there was not much to do during the tour. I didn’t really talk to Sarkozy as he was busy signing agreements with China and dealing with political affairs. The best thing from the trip, though, was that I got to know the head of the Louvre Museum. We had a nice chat on the flight to Beijing. This eventually led to my exhibition “The Funeral of Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in 2009. The last living contemporary artist who had his work shown at the Louvre was Picasso.
VIVE LA FRANCE That year, I also received the medal of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. It was an award to recognise my contribution to culture and art in France. But I think France has given me more than what I have given it. It gave me everything to become an artist. Its art, literature, science and language have had much influence around the world. I feel a lot of people don’t understand the French, but I do. It was fortunate the Shanghai art academy rejected me. If they hadn’t, I would not have come to France. I would have stayed in China and my most important years would have been wasted.
Published in the Post Magazine on 1 December 2013