2014 April | HUBAI INSTITUDE OF FINE ARTS JOURNAL–Cen Long and his Silver Age

Cen Long and his Silver Age
By: Huang Zhuan

Cen Long is like an artist in the Silver Age, who is stuck in the gap of glorious and absurd times. He longs for the glory of the Golden Era while sighing for its recession, knowing that those shines will not come back, yet refusing to follow the crowd; instead, he strives to handedly build his own Silver Age, the transitional age between divine and depravity. Such ambition has kept his painting techniques and sentiments tranquil and interesting, out of tune with our flashy world.

Cen Long’s paintings are a combination of serious Classical Realism and modest Expressionism. Often, with classical poetry, little girls, mountain villagers, farmers, ethnic minorities and even anthropomorphic animals, he illustrates the imaginary utopia and express the homesickness of modern people after the loss of home. In his paintings remain simple and sentimental qualities and many nostalgic tastes drifting away from our time. Forthrightly, his art is the praise and remembrance for a well-intentioned humanity world. The pursuit for great art has developed almost harsh selfrequirements for art techniques and quality, which he considers responsibilities and purposes of his art career. He always insists the “art for art” creed anachronistically, so that we feel the introspective sense of antiquation and distance when we look at his works after we got used to vain and exaggerated postmodern images.

Cen was born in an educated family in the middle of last century. His father Cen Jiawu was a pioneer in Chinese ethnology and anthropology, and his mother was a historian. In the Chinese academic history, his father’s “History of Totem Art” published in 1937 is regarded the pioneering work in the field of “Art Anthropology”. As a common fate for all intellectuals in that era, his father, Dean of the South Central University for Nationalities, was a major target of the criticism movement and was persecuted to death at the age of 54, leaving a tragic chapter in the history of ill-fated Chinese modern academic. He inherited from his father and family not only the artistic genes, good family upbringing, elegancy, honesty and courteous qualities, but also a kind of restrained arrogance and a unsociable character. A short life experience in France in his childhood has become an unforgettable memory in his understanding and learning of Western arts. Until today, he still maintained great interests in Chinese classical arts, European Romanticism, and Russian literature and poetry in the Silver Age; the fund of classical music from Baroque to early Romantic era is also a part of his daily life. He also likes films from the early impressionism, expressionism to a variety of New Wave films; he is familiar with all classic works of Jean Renoir, Hitchcock, Buñuel, Bergman, Robert Bresson, Fellini, Godard, Resnais, Bertolucci, Antonioni, Angelopoulos, Polanski, Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu, Kurosawa, Herzog and Haneke. However, unlike most young artists of our time; to him, keeping these interests is not for conversations or entertainment, nor for showing off. These hobbies are food for his soul and the psychics for connection with his inner utopia, providing him with a survival balance. Without them, he can barely confront alone the impetuous and noisy outside world, not to mention art creations.

In the forty years of Cen Long’s art creation, Chinese painting has experienced the ideological realism, a variety of aggressive modernism, and post-modern images; however, the complex changes in time never seemed to change his original love for painting, as it is a way for him to understand life and express feelings. Maybe only painting can bring his life the needed courage, comfort and hope. Cen’s early paintings absorbed the influences of European classical realism, romanticism and impressionism; his skillful shaping capabilities and neurotic color strokes are shown in both portraits and characters in theme works. (Girl in Red, Young Boy with Red Scarf, Actor of Children Theatre, and Morning of Akzo.) In the vigorous modernist movement in the 1980s, he once attempted the modern expressionist style, and found an Austrian artist in the modern painting history, Schiele, who he can communicate spiritually and linguistically. Schiele’s expressionist style was inherited his teacher Klimt’s decorative painting methods, absorbing the linear tradition and planar deformation style of ukiyo-e, while Schiele adopted highly neurotic method of direct painting on the dynamics and expressions of the characters. Such tension between subjective color expression and restrained shaping approach has formed the largest difference between Schiele and the bold early Geman Expressionism. This is exactly the quality Cen has pursued in his own paintings: the delicate balance between strong individuality and sufficient level of rationalization. Kashi Night, Red Moon, Self- Portrait, Love, and Twilight Snow in particular, are works under such influence. Twilight Snow was created in 1987, when Cen was 30, as well as a mark of his artistic maturity. The work portrays an isolated mountain area with a low angle view, the geometrically deformed mountains and gloomy colors in extensive strokes jointly create an impression of extreme depression; the donkey walking difficultly on the mountain road is the personification of the artist himself, a lonely and regretless spirit.

Cen has always lived in the city, while the background of his works are mostly mountain areas and rural villages. Such topic decision is different from the “return to nature” motivation of early realism or the purpose of visual experiments of impressionism and post-impressionism. The motivation behind this topic choices are more of psychological reasons: it is an intuitive rebellious reaction against the urbanized civilization, as well as the imagination of the utopia space in his mind. Afar, Pony, Story, Childhood, Stable, and Little Silvie and I, we can discover another image source of his paintings: Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s Netherlandic folk painting traditions in the 16th century. He expressed the loneliness self in the modern world by Schiele’s hands, and in the story-telling customs of these allegorical folk paintings he found the psychological sustenance for modern people who have lost their homes. In the recent series of works of “Purgatory Period” and “Bard Period” named by the critics, he made northern Shaanxi farmers and Xinjiang nomadic people the topics, highly integrated the subjective imagination and nature illustration, and created a self-contained and symbolic ideal world, where his effort in the personal utopia has nearly become religious.

Cen’s paintings are narrative myths about lost modern people searching their way home, as well as the psychological records of such journeys. In these memories, there are graceful and compassionate stories and deep sighs for the long lost times. In Windy Wilderness, Weaned Calf and Silver Land in Twilight, he simplifies such conflict of loss into rustic stories between characters and their animal companions, striving to imbed the conflicts into a poetic scene. Nomadic Life, Overlooking Muztagata, Rawap, White Horse, The Hawk, Purgatory (Triptych Painting), are active narrations about people, animals and the nature; however, just like musics and fictions of stream of consciousness, artists minimize such narrative content so that there are enough spaces for our interpretation.

Gombrich once called the unknown artists who do not obey fashion, lust and vanity “Underground” artists “Art and Science”. In the art world drifting further away from our past, they stick to their bottom line of art and cope with the changing world with unchangingness, so that we have a chance to re-experience some long lost values in art. Cen is exactly an artist with visions who lives in his imaginary world. He knows, all his efforts are only for creating a Silver Age, the Silver Age all to himself.

(Acknowledgement: The article refers to “The Singer on the Top of Clouds” by Ms. Lin Xuanhan.)