It’s a painting you have to see in person, says Yan Pei-Ming in a recent interview. Yan, a contemporary expressionist Chinese painter was referring to Gustave Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans, a rule-breaking 19th century masterpiece depicting a somber burial scene. The men and women hovering over a shoddy casket were, for the first time, ordinary people. Among the crowded mass stand a butcher, priests, mothers and their children– rural, middle class citizens. When it was presented at the Paris Exposition, it caused an “explosive reaction.” Some thought it was vulgar—others, revolutionary. Gustave Courbet had broken a long-upheld convention. This burial scene spreads over a canvas twenty feet long, a Herculean size previously reserved for “history painting,” like scenes of the coronation of Napoleon or Washington crossing the Delaware. What may have once been a canvas reserved for epic scenes of thrashing, frothing waves now depicted a dark, realistic and entirely banal scene.
Yan Pei-Ming follows in Courbet’s steps in a new exhibition, A Burial in Shanghai. It celebrates the 200th anniversary of Courbet’s birth and pays homage to Yan’s mother, who died in July 2018. The title is a nod to his Shanghainese heritage and to Courbet’s seminal work. The exhibition features a colossal triptych. The three panels are painted in different styles, from the most abstract and expressionist to the most realist. The first depicts a mountainous vista cloaked in fog. Yan describes it as “an idealized landscape, heavenly perhaps, where I would hope for my mother to reside.” Much media attention has been given to the third panel, which follows the composition of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans but instead depicts a scene from his mother’s funeral. However, it was a monumental portrait of Yan’s mother that captivated me. Through this painting, Yan challenges unquestioned rules about who we paint, and how.
Yan’s mother loomed over me as I gazed up at her colossal portrait. Her portrait is painted in grayscale, with large, imprecise brushstrokes. The woman’s face fills the upper third of the enormous canvas. She is sitting upright in a bed and has pulled her thick duvet blanket over her lower body. Her right arm rests on the mattress but is cut off by the bottom of the frame. The perspective in the painting creates the sensation that Yan is standing at an arm’s distance from her. He may have even been holding his mother’s hand, a detail hidden by the composition of the portrait. Somehow, I felt like I was standing in that room too, as if I were sitting on the edge of the bed, witnessing a final, tender moment between mother and son.
The background of the painting is blurry, and I could hardly make out the power outlet painted on the wall over her bed and some indistinct furniture deeper in the room. Only the details of the mother’s face are well defined, as her body is covered in the plush blanket. Deep, parentheses-shaped lines frame her lips, and the defined wrinkles on her forehead imitate a series of waves reaching up to her hairline. Her hair is tussled, a shock of white tufts cut bluntly at her ear. Exactly like my grandmother, I thought. A few strands have fallen over her right eyebrow. She looks natural, barefaced, as if this painting were not in a gallery in Paris, as if it were in a series of photos taken on Yan’s phone. The mother looks completely ordinary—in a robe and not a uniform, sitting in a bed instead of a throne. Her portrait looks incongruous among the generals, kings and queens depicted throughout the museum.
I sat on the bench at the center of the exhibition room, dwarfed by the mammoth panels of the triptych. I considered my surprise at seeing an unedited portrait of a woman here, in a space and medium that had always been reserved for kings and victorious men on horses. The intimacy in the portrait contrasts with those stern, intimidating paintings. This portrait creates a delicate and unedited scene, a frame balancing between intimacy and reverence. Yan challenges classic rules of portraiture and representation by depicting an intimate and personal scene and magnifying it onto a 15-foot canvas. The enormity of the painting also dramatized the dearth of ordinary people, ordinary women portrayed on these museum walls. Yan forces us to reconsider to whom we implicitly reserve the largest canvases. By depicting just one woman, he shows the viewer that this scale isn’t reserved for scenes of war and anguish, coronations and proclamations, and victorious tri-color flags waving over seething masses of sweating, bleeding bodies. Yan’s exhibition is incongruous among the classic portraits featured elsewhere in the museum because of our unchallenged expectations of art and portraiture.
I have always felt guilty for having no interest in the portrait galleries of famous museums. Unable to fake erudite fascination for these busts, I bypass them entirely in favor of colorful impressionists, American realists, or really, anything else. Yan Pei-Ming’s portrait of his mother changes our deep-seated understanding and expectations of portraiture. A portrait can depict real life. It can elicit emotion. And everyday people can be represented as kings—it’s only a matter of scale.