From the Beijing Opera Series
"From the Beijing Opera Series", Oil on canvas, approx 140 x 180 cm
September 9 to November 5, 2005
You and your friends are cordially invited to the opening on Friday, September 9, at 7.p.m
Shen Liang (b. 1976 in Beijing) began painting series when he was still a child. His first consisted of variations on the entrance of the Culture House in Yingkou (province of Liaoning), where he lived with his family at the time. He painted about one hundred variations of that entrance. At the age of 16, he was admitted to the Beijing Art Academy for his secondary schooling, and subsequently, college and graduate studies. He still lives in that megalopolis, "a place full of paradoxes and harmony" in his words. That description, a paradox in its own right, is a fitting characterization of the city today. Any big city in which established traditions and technical progress clash, faces conflicts between the world of advertising and the latest hi-tech products, and the long-grown customs that continue to shape the place just as much.
Beijing Opera represents a symbol of those well-established Chinese traditions. In 1790, at the occasion of Emperor Qianlong's 80th birthday, the most renowned artists from the provinces of Jiangxi, Hubei, Sichuan, and Shanxi came to the capital--and stayed. They got together with other artists from Beijing, and their diverse operatic styles--Hui Opera, Han Opera, Kun Opera, Yi Opera, and Qin Opera--gradually merged, blended in the speech melody and musical style of Beijing, and eventually developed into the unique genre of Beijing Opera.
Beijing Opera combines not only singing and acting, but also elements of dance, martial arts and acrobatics. Four lead roles dominate the scene: Sheng, the male role; Dan, the female part; Jing, a male character with a painted face; and Chou, the clown. The names of these roles actually do not correlate with their functions: Sheng means "strange" or "rare," although this character represents a well-known man; Dan means "morning" or "male," but it is a female role; Jing translates as "clean," and yet the character's make-up appears unclean, though colored; and finally, Chou stands for an ox, a rather phlegmatic and quiet creature, whereas the part of the clown is one of excitement, garrulousness, and hectic activity.
The stage sets and costumes of Beijing Opera are rudimentary, as it works with symbolic rather than realistic means. Pantomimic performances transcend the limits of time and space on stage. The lyrics are based on fairy tales, folktales and legends as well as classical narratives. The repertoire is categorized as either "Wen" (civilian) or "Wu" (military), and plays going back to the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (1279-1368 and 1368-1644, respectively) predominate. As an art form not confined to any specific region, Beijing Opera continues to this date to be performed by drama groups all over China.
Shen Liang looks at this classical Chinese performing art "from a modern perspective." His pictures take their place among contemporary Chinese art not only in that they are paintings, but also in that they depict present-day life in a very intimate way. They indicate an unresolved relationship with a tradition that means little for many a Chinese youth. In the Beijing Opera series, people dressed in costumes characteristic of Beijing Opera appear in a place that is only hinted at by a few colored shapes. They are captured in positions that suggest they are dancing or performing martial arts. While the shading in Shen Liang's first series on the subject was basically grey and black, the current one contains a variety of colors, which creates a strong impression of the liveliness of this kind of opera.
In Beijing Opera, the costumes, as well as hairdos and headgear, betray the social status of the roles and characterize their personality. The different foundations, shadings and colors of their facial make-ups, too, indicate their emotions, moods, and character traits. The color red, for instance, stands for loyalty and honesty. Black bespeaks courage and uprightness, yellow signifies insidiousness, while white stands for unpredictability. In many of Shen Liang's paintings, these nuances of color, and thus the symbolic values they convey, are hardly visible any more; instead, they have blended to create a general impression of vagueness, or transience. The hurried brushstroke conveys the dynamics of the movements, of martial arts being integrated into the opera performance. The hazy, indistinctive quality of the pictures especially bespeak a tradition that is still vividly alive, but at the same time resembles only a vague recollection.
"Opera seems to be detached from our daily lives," Shen Liang says, suggesting a possible interpretation of his pictures as a reaction to the growing discrepancy between traditions grown over the centuries and a here and now that is marked by a fast pace of life, extensive communicative networks, and a fascination with the rapid beat of contemporary pop music, like techno, hip-hop and R & B, rather than emotional arias. The time and leisure to concentrate on a performance that lasts several hours is lacking. Nevertheless, "like it or not, this tradition by nature sticks to the young, too." Although they may never have attended a performance, they are familiar with the characteristic features of Beijing Opera through their relatives and ancestors, for whom it was an important part of life. According to Shen Liang, most Chinese youths do not understand Beijing Opera, to say nothing of liking it. His pictures thus provide an introspective view of its current status, at a time marked by both stability and fleetingness. To be sure, Shen Liang is not intent on mourning the imminent disappearance of Beijing Opera, because he simply states that as a fact. He deals with one fleeting moment in time, while the future remains to be seen.
Meike Behm (Translation by Simone Schede)
Shen Liang "Beijing Opera" as pdf-File 88,5 KB