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April 6, 2010

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An artist who couldn't be crushed

REPAIRING shoes was artist Ren Weiyin's job during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) - one that lasted for 17 years.

But the daily routine didn't crush his artistic spirit.

A retrospective exhibition of the late artist's work, featuring about 120 of his paintings, is currently on display at Shanghai Art Museum.

He is a legendary figure in Chinese painting, having been one of the first painters to mix Western painting influences with traditional Chinese methods and perspectives. Ren also developed what he called a "thin paint" technique, adding oil to the paints, giving them greater liquidity, thus allowing Chinese calligraphic brush techniques such as "waving" to be applied to the oil medium.

Ren's life was not an easy one, especially for an artist.

He used to compare his fate with that of the character of Dr Manette in Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities."

He was forbidden to paint and forced to become a shoe repairman during the "cultural revolution." The wages were meager and the family suffered. They lived in an 8-square-meter concrete room with no bathroom or kitchen and one small window in Shanghai.

But in his eyes, those past 17 years really echoed the opening lines of that classic novel "Bleak House:"

"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."

For a long time, his name and his art were not widely recognized even after he died in 1994.

"This is the first time that our museum has unveiled Ren's accomplishments in art to the public," says Fang Zengxian, director of Shanghai Art Museum.

Born in 1918 in Kunming, Yunnan Province, Ren's mother died when he was still a child.

"I didn't receive any maternal love all my life and had just a vague image of my mother," Ren wrote in his autobiography.

"I even envied my own daughter and son. Although they are now adults, yet they still have their 'dear daddy and mummy'."

"Ren had a rather harsh life," wrote another artist, the late Shen Roujian. "Due to his financial difficulties, Ren wasn't able to purchase canvasses and oil paints during the 'cultural revolution.' Thus he used some waste carbon-box paper and created his own oil colors. Under such a tough environment, he unwittingly explored his unique technique and skills with those stunning pieces."

Ren's oil painting used quite a lot of megilp (a varnish-oil mixture) merged with oil paint, thus making his artwork flexible and vivid, leaving almost no texture on the canvas.

Fang says his art uses "the strong points of traditional ink-wash paintings to offset the weak points in Western oil paintings."

Ren was an expert in brushstrokes, his chaotic yet rhythmic brushstrokes reminiscent of those on rice-paper.

A kind of freedom and wild ambience permeates his paintings, yet they incorporate some sentimental and sad touches. Joy, tragedy, a sense of yearning and what are commonly thought of as life's mundane realities somehow exist together simultaneously with complete naturalness.

"When I was repairing shoes, I felt secure and compensated, because I finally found a balance between my job and interest," he wrote in his autobiography.

"I realized that any job with an altruistic motif is actually beneficial. I no longer complained that I didn't have enough time for painting. I feel the joy of bright sunshine, the abundant greenery and the leisurely time. Actually I painted some art pieces that I would never be able to create afterwards."

Date: through April 23, 9am-5pm

Venue: Shanghai Art Museum, 325 Nanjing Rd W.

Tel: 6327-2829


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