Figure paintings and portraitures have always been the most attractive elements in the visual arts, people learn about the world through the body. Body as a visual object and visual representation is an approach in which people reflect upon themselves and the world at large, therefore the history of art can often be condensed to the history of portraits, or history of the body.
The art theorist Gombrich has a famous saying that, Painting is an activity, so the artists tendency depends on what he wants to paint, rather than painting what he perceives. In todays overwhelming flux of desire and the ever-renewing experience of consumption culture, is Gombrichs principle still applicable? If one reflects upon Jiang Hengs series of femme fatale, perhaps one would find the unique image of the femme fatale. What is more interesting is, among the varying faces of these beautiful women, one symbol transgresses them is their disproportionate eyes. What are those big eyes staring at? To stare into such gaze as an observer, what would you discover?
Amongst which, the female figure becomes the visual focus of any given time. With distinctive symbolic meaning, besides its physiological meaning, females have been assigned to various social and cultural significances. Whether in the West or in China, a visual history of female portraits is not only an developmental history of art, but also the transformation of aesthetic ideology. Of course, it is also the history of social evolution, reflecting the diversity of a given society and culture.
I believe, the big eyes are a remarkable symbol is perhaps what the artist want to paint in his femme fatale series.
In the field of visual arts, the motif as visual symbols and language plays a pivotal role. It does not only achieve certain visual effects and satisfy aesthetic psychology, at the same time it explains the cultural significance and relevant cultural context entailed. In other words, to establish a motif and individual and stylistic elements are mutually effective. For each artist, to establish an artistic motif is considered his ultimate pursuit. The exploration of the female figure has been an important theme in portraiture. Many artists study the subject throughout their lives. The thousands of years of Chinese paintings on courtesan ladies have contributed a plethora of essence and legends to Chinese art. The Nymph of Luo River, Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, Cout Ladies Wearing Flower Headdresses, are works still mesmerize the contemporaries. Since paintings on silk of the Han dynasty, paintings on courtesans have transformed with time and cultural transformation from being fluid and elegant wise women of the Wei and Jin dynasty, to the plumb nobles of the Tang dynasty, to the delicate and rich commoners of the Song and Yuan dynasty, to representation of cultural downfall with women portrayed as weak, melancholy and fragile. Therefore, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, the meaning of so-called traditional paintings on court ladies is relatively fixed, it exemplifies the feminine qualities of fragile beauty as gentle and exquisite, feeble, melancholic, soft, tranquil, and introverted. Therefore, the traditional courtesans are often portrayed with sloping shoulders, small eyes, thin eyebrows, slim faces, and tiny mouths.
As we know, the consumption society is a highly visual society, viewing is not only a way in which to experience consumption but a proof of existence. The relationship between culture and visual culture have reached unprecedented conspiracy in the present. The time of discovering a good drink in the deep alley has been long gone, what is before us are those in front of our eyes, emitting unimaginable power. The French philosopher Guy Debords so-called Social Landscape has became a reality. The femme fatales eyes while gazing at us invite us to stare back. Therefore, the act of viewing and its artistic representation became the basic top of Jiang Hengs paintings.
Throughout the historical development and visual archives of the 20th century, the female figure becomes the most symbolic and penetrating visual emblem. It is closely tied to the liberation of individualism, emancipation of conservative mentalities, and the emancipation of women. The womens scream for freedom and independence thus became the loudest sound of this era. Subsequently, the motif of women underwent significant transformation. The revolutionary art after the founding of the Peoples republic, the righteous, hardworking iron-women were representatives of the new era, in the scar art, folk realist art and new classical art after the Cultural Revolution, most women were portrayed with individualism, personal ideals and qualities. Among the paintings by He Jiaying, Wang Yidong, Jin Shangyi, Yang Feiyun, Chen Yifei and others, the female image is portrayed idyllically and moist.
Undoubtedly, the painter is most interested in viewing, yet now all painters consciously treat viewing as the object of representation. In Jiang Hengs numerous series, the reoccurring image of the femme fatale became the transgressing emblem, thus entitled the Femme Fatale Series. Examining these women in detail, we cannot help to be shocked by the naked truth about viewing. I noticed that Jiang Hengs femme fatale series are somewhat akin to the ceramic dolls, because their eyes are nevertheless scarily large. These usual proportions have displayed the most crucial sensation for this consumption society with the most exaggerated manner. Moreover, behind the plethora of gazes and stares, myriads of visual enticements sip out. Noted is the highlight of on the dark eyes, from the ambiguous round dot (in Scattered Object 36) to the reflection similar to an exclamation mark (in Scattered Object 54), or the seemingly reflection of the display window (Beautiful Flower 2). These ways of expression reflect the eyes desire to the wonders of this world, and the lingering visions on the enigmas of life. We cannot help but to feel appalled by those exaggerated eyes, drawn to those longing eyes, and attracted to the gazes of desire. Perhaps there is reason of these womens glance is a visual culture fable of the consumption society.
Since the 1990s, consumer culture has brought forth new values and new ideals. The materialistic system became the breading ground, nourishing body, restriction and regulator for the new culture. The female figure as the observer, narrator, player of the consumer culture, certainly would undergo drastic changes. How would the sensible visual artist portray the female figure of our time? In other words, how would one paint the image of the contemporary courtesan? To paint the portrait of the contemporary women in the style of courtesan women, yet without losing a sense of time, became the biggest challenge for artists, at the same time, it was also an important opportunity.
Among different styles, the artist Jiang Heng presents a visual answer much to our surprises. Since the 1990s, Jiang Heng has been painting the femme fatale of the present, Femme Fatale-Fish, Starry Night, Scattered Objects, Landscape of the Consumption Era, until the Butterfly, Fluttering Butterfly series of 2008, beautiful women has been the main character throughout. We can say, Hes an avid explorer and creator of contemporary paintings of beauty.
Here, I would like to make a comparison by referring to two paintings, from which we will perhaps decipher the complex meaning of Jiang Hengs images of femme fatale. One of the paintings is the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magrittes The False Mirror (Image I), in this painting, Magritte used the reflection of the eye to represent the realistic image of white clouds in the blue sky. As as surrealist painter, perhaps this painting reveals the dreamlike view found in ones memory, yet are presented in its actual natural form, which can seem to have the somewhat tromp loeil effect. Looking back into Jiang Hengs paintings, Fluttering Butterfly (Image II), the gaze in his femme fatales is filled with curiosity, shes staring into this world. Not only with her won eyes, but uses a magnifying glasses to examine this world, because she wants to see the world with clarity. If Magrittes surrealist gaze reflect the actual view is a sarcastic approach to express imagination, then the gazes of Jiang Hengs femme fatale must be the true expression of utter imagination. In other words, femme fatale as a symbol of material desire of the consumption world, has vividly revealed the truth of todays visual culture: using ones eyes to wager and consume this society. Here, the eyes are highly exaggerated and symbolized. Indeed, with slightest attention to our everyday life, one would notice anything that is attractive is first shown as a spectacle. The entire world has been transformed to images, as Debord stated, the spectacle is caused by facts, in other words, people today are observers. This let to the spectacles monopoly and violence in contemporary society. As people are absorbed in the discussion of the everyday aesthetics, an important fact is revealed in Jiang Hengs work, that is, todays culture is an experiential culture. And the primary approach to experience is seeing, the eyes not only approximate everything, just as the symbolic gaze of these beautiful women, but most importantly, people need to appropriate various techniques to consume such culture visually. The magnifying glass is the representation of various digital technology, communication devices, visual technology and consumption methods. Therefore, viewing, the most common behavior is shown in a rather estranged effect, it displays the visual desire and its gratification has been augmented to ways in which to verify ones existence in the transformation of visual culture of the consumption era I see therefore I am. Magrittes dreamlike mirror is behind us, the beautiful women as the visual object, stares with their big eyes, are visual emblem represented, as well as the invitation to the viewers to enjoy such visual feast. Not only can one experience with their naked eyes, but also with the assistance of the magnifying glass to enlarge such experience.
However, Jiang Hengs beautiful women have completely subverted our visual habits and psychological expectations: under the glamorous background, the standardized large eyes and small lips in women are bright, their voluptuous bodies and the seaweed-like hair are vivid beauties of youth. Accompanying the beauties are fish, flower, butterfly, images that often appear in traditional courtesan paintings. Therefore, thematically speaking, they are not much different from its traditional counterparts. In Landscape of Consumption Era X from 2003, one could even notice the realm attained in traditional ink painting.
Therefore, I would like to comment that the scarily large yet real eyes have became the cultural emblem to experience current culture. The dichotomous quality of the femme fatale and their gazes are presented literally. As a viewer, confronted with this painting, we are in fact viewing the gaze of this beauty and stare into her stare. On the one hand, these beautiful women exist as the image in the mirror; on the other hand, while we stare into their stares weve became the image in the mirror of their gaze, this is the dialectics of visual culture. It helps us to further understand Maurice Merleau-Pontys statement, Viewing is like being at the crossroad, it is where all directions meet. What people perceive and made seen, evolves above existence, is the act of viewing.
Yet, the obvious distinction resides in these beauties: Jiang Hengs femme fatales, although beautiful, are yet non-consumable, not only do they lack the warm quality of tame fragrance and preciousness, instead are replaced with the sense of unapproachable mechanical and material flavor. Even their flirtatious smirk, and what transmits from their round glassy eyes are still frigid stares, their smiles are reserved and cold, as if they are unworldly, which contrasts with the bright candy colors of these images. One is frigid, the other warm. Even though these beautiful women are youthful, but they are unreachable and cant communicate with, lacking any liveliness, just as the butterflies in Fluttering Butterfly, although bright in color, but lacks life, which can only be made into samples.
Then lets compare the other painting, the American Pop artist Tom Wesslemanns The Great American Nude 59. I am uncertain whether Jiang Hengs femme fatale series are influenced by this American Pop artist. Although the comparison of these two artists can be mesmerizing. Without mentioning the similarity of their series of works, in terms of their creativity. What interests me is that Wasslemanns Nude series have never painted the eyes onto the women, in order to emphasize the sexy characteristics of women; whereas in Jiang Hengs femme fatale (Fluttering Butterfly 17) the kitsch sexiness seem to be separated from the glassy effect of the ceramic-like dolls, yet highlights the big eyes and her desire filled gaze.
Precisely, Jiang Hengs femme fatales are samples of our time, the body sample of a material era. The focus on the body in contemporary culture has reached an unprecedented height, body and class, body and power, the meaning of the body and strategy have always been the points of focus, but the physicality of the body and its social implications have been generalized as the materialized consumption society and our desire for it. For this reason, the decorative, physical, and details of visual characteristics are enforced.
Body is where the eyes (gaze, visualize) focus, which certainly grant them unusual meanings. The ultimate attraction of these beautiful women are their eyes, they have been over emphasized, they are large, round and bright, occupying the centre attention of every image. The New Idol Time I am beautiful therefore I am Happy from 2007, compositionally resemble to the self-portrait photographs posted on the internet. Since these photos are usually taken with ones cellphone or camera, they can often be out of focus making the image rather distorted. The beautiful women in Jiang Hengs paintings usually have a large head, slim face, a typical cartoon picture found on the internet. In Scattered Objects, the proportion of the eyes are further magnified, some rather non-human characteristics can be uncomfortable. Looking at courtesan ladies in traditional paintings where their eyes are drawn with two black dots, lips as one red dot, and eyebrows as a line, and the undefined contour could tell us the composition for courtesan painting have undergone significant changes.
Speaking of traditional painting, Chinese paintings have always emphasized the key of passing on the spirit through the eyes, which explains not drawing the eyes to dragons. Wasslemanns women without eyes perhaps originate in other thinking, perhaps in his view, these nude women have became soulless bodies, therefore it is unnecessary to draw the window to their soul, or perhaps only the lips and nipple can best represent the sexual characteristics of Hollywood symbolism, and the eyes became dispensable. Jiang Hengs femme fatale series on the contrary, depict the eyes are its core emblem. It is not only a must to paint the women with eyes, but had to be done in the most exaggerated approach. The sexy kitsch is no longer a novelty under Jiang Hengs brush, what he would like to express is the symbolic relationship between the eyes and the world, where the world is in a visually dominated era, the joy of ones existence and experience relies on ones visual command. Hence, Jiang Hengs femme fatale series transcends the American Pop art kitsch art, but penetrates into the visual topic of modern culture: the inquest of viewing. Wang Erde has pointed out before that, to view an object is entirely different from having seen an object. We look at the world daily, but could have seen nothing at all. The big eyes in Jiang Hengs femme fatale series with piercing gazes is perhaps questioning the act of viewing, calling on the presence of viewing, transforming viewing from seeing. The objects existence is because we have seen them, what we see, how we see it, depends on the art influencing us. Isnt that the truth the artist would like us to know?
The critic Yang Xiaoyan calls Jiang Hengs femme fatale as Idols of Desire, and the artist has also created series of works entitled Idol Time, New Idol Time, in other words, these fashionable women have indeed became the idol of our time. However, such explanation conjures many meanings that prompt one to reflect: whose idols are they, the artists, the mens or that of the time? Has the idol been materialized, or the material desire is idolized, or do the material desire and idolization mutually feed into each other?
In summary, I would like to say that the gazes on the images soaked up with invitation constantly approximates and contests the viewers gaze, questioning us whether we have understood the truth from the visual experience of this consumption era? Whether you have transformed seeing to viewing? Have you witnessed the reflexive nature in viewing? As Merleau-Ponty stated, the object is below our eyes, that rejects and disperses their truth form, they question our gaze directly. They challenge the agreement we have reached with our body and this world.
The so-called idol is the object in which people today desire, it transposes and replaces ones desire. What would Jiang Hengs femme fatale categorize to? How would their artistic form and social image be defined? Among the female figures in traditional visual archive, it is usually categorized as angels and witches, the former is self-sufficient, gentle and a giver, where the latter is often the one who would take your life, although extremely beautiful, yet are frigid and senseless, embodying desire and attraction, Salome under the aesthetist is a typical example. So how should Jiang Hengs beautiful women be categorized? Are they embodiments of ideal individual qualities or the flower of evil? Obviously, they cannot be categorized simply, they are intrinsic femme fatale of our consumption era, idols of consumption, the byproduct of this era. The girls are fashionable, sexy, beautiful, but empty, indifferent, melancholic, or even anxious these are reflections of our own situation of our generation, they are the ailments of ones anxiety, psychosis, or carriers of a time of hyped consumer culture.
What is interesting is, as a early participant of the cartoon generation, Jiang Hengs beautiful women seem to have originated from the eternal realm of fables: since the 1990s, his beautiful women have had little change, their eyes are big, lips are rosy and small, skin soft and glossy, attractive and youthful. The saying of the beautiful woman is like a noble general, who should not allow others to witness her age are best represented in Jiang Hengs paintings.
Therefore, we can say that Jiang Hengs paintings are a visual representations of adult fables: aesthetically pleasing images, beautiful women, eternal beauty that satisfy peoples desire to image, the poetic life, and revisit the simple years through visual phenomenon. They seem to be able to cure chronic disease and provides warmth to those adults in dire conditions of life.
It is even more interesting to analyze from the angle of colors applied. Candy colors are what Jiang Heng utilize the most: pink, baby blue, lemon, orange, plus the artists favorite flat colors without applying any techniques of dimensionality, to render the fable-like decorative effect. The beautiful butterfly bows, apple, roses, stilettos are often found on these images, they not only display strong gender implications, but motifs often used in fables. Therefore, Jiang Heng has created a fable for adults in Lolita style. Of course, the fable of consumption is both aesthetically pleasing and to be desired.
Even though the artist thought he has stamped Chinese symbolism to his femme fatale with goldfish, new-year calendars and etc, although Jiang Hengs beautiful women are international, especially in his earlier series, the likelihood of Barbie dolls and Japanese anime girls often appear in his composition.
However, works from recent years began to showcase oriental flavors, especially in the Fluttering Butterfly series, while maintaining his aesthetic style, his imageries are void, tranquil with apparent oriental sense of calmness. The beautiful women in these painting have transformed from having red hair to dark hair, from the robotic beauty to being organic, they smile or even slightly naughty. Images of the beautiful women and butterflies are enigmatic and distant, the richness sips out from tranquility, where glamour and tranquility unites a true oriental flavor. For which we can claim that Jiang Hengs femme fatales are the modern expression of oriental courtesan motif, in the history of the painting on court ladies, Jiang Hengs transformation is unique and irreplaceable. Of course, as a stylistic and creative artist, Jiang Hengs evolution in visual motif and the elevation of aesthetic values awaits our future attention.