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.
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.
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.
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.
Visual sounds emitted like a sociologist
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.
It is easy to be reminded of the opening words in Charles Dickens Tales of Two Cities when looking at Jiang Hengs paintings, IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
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.
His works adopt a literal approach to satirize the current relationship between men and society, art and artist that in my view can be both documentary and an overview. It is a time when the spectacle of representing the object and the artists mysterious impulse naturally comes together and merge.
Using the approach of anime with the basic motif of femme fatale is the mode of the present Chinas transition from the late 20th century to the 21st century. Thirty years ago, people first learned about televisions, and thirty years later as they retrieve memories from of the last century, would they think about cinema? Jiang Heng did not choose to portray the machines and technology used to document material desire, he documented the way of life, those beautiful women, and the blissful attitude leading a relaxed life. It is precise the case today, sales in a shop, a time flooded with fashion; it is also an opportunity, for television commercials, the internet and anime. Not only life is such, art is no different, the dolls as well.
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.
Today, objects are ominous, moreover, it essentially reflects wealth this is the profound truth inescapable for art and artists. Many artists are trapped, they struggle with it, or involved. Yet, there is a distinction between realization and expression of such phenomenon, as one speaks out about it implies the existence of other pursuits, otherwise, it would be unnecessary, nor would it have any audience; there isnt any truth objectivity or truth, ones expression is about speaking out ones mind.
His shift is moderate, but has show outstanding transformation. Those femme fatale and dolls, seems right, quite real, but not entirely, or perhaps not at all. Its the artists own interpretation, irrelevant to others, although if he didnt want to argue with others, it would be irrelevant.
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.
It is a common approach to allegorize for other emotions and interests through portraying the scenes of the everyday, it is also arts unique channel to intervene in society.
In the 60s and 70s, thinkers showed great interesting in Western life, and have raised classic criticisms. And now its Chinas turn, as it surges towards modern industrialization, in the process of fervent urbanization, the visual sounds emit by the artist are response and echoes to such progress in China.
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.
It is predictable that, post-2008, it will still be a time of consumerism and sense driven, would the femme fatales still be what Jiang Heng has portrayed, timid and flirtatious, perhaps that would be a question to keep in mind.
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.
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?
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.