Global times- Fine Artist
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Global Times [01:55 March 18 2010]Comments Li Chevalier with her works. Photos: Guo Yingguang By Wang Fanfan
Li Chevalier adores black and white, both in painting and fashion style. Her long black hair sits elegantly disheveled on her shoulder, covering half of her face. Thick dark eyeliner is the only visible color; highlighting her mysterious personality.
Standing in front of her paintings, even the most testy and frantic people will stop and ask fundamental human questions: What is the meaning of life? Where do I come from? What is my destination? A cross, a cello, an empty chair, and a tombstone are the symbols Chevalier uses to express a strong sense of loneliness and emptiness, despite the fact that she is happily married with two kids.
Musician to artist
Chevalier was born in Beijing, but it took her a huge detour and several decades to find her real talent in painting, during which she was a singer, a graduate student of philosophy, a wife and a mother. Chevalier grew up in 1970s China, when the Cultural Revolution had given way to the era of Reform and Opening-up. She married Frenchman Laurent Chevalier, and immigrated to France in 1984. After living in Europe for more than two decades, Chevalier now speaks better French than Chinese. When she wants to express herself, she says the French word first, and then hangs on for a couple of seconds to find the proper Chinese translation for it. However, no matter how long she has lived abroad, and whatever language she speaks, she claims herself to be an oriental artist.
Chevalier wasn't born a painter, but she's still an artist to the bone. Fate played a game with her; her passion for the arts first led to music. From 14 to 19, Chevalier was a folk singer in the Chinese Army's opera troupe, and she was disappointed performing most of the time to soldiers and peasants. In her 20s, Chevalier moved to Paris. As much as she adored art, she decided to study political science first, in order to figure out the questions in her life that being in China had left unsolved. Undergrad studies had not satisfied her, and she continued to pursue a master degree in philosophy at Sorbonne University.
Chevalier did not become a scholar or a musician; she chose to start all over again in her 30s to learn painting. "In French we call a musical performer interpréteur, because his or her job is to interpret the composer. But being a painter, I am free to express myself, no different from writers or poets," says Chevalier. "Philosophy serves as the foundation of my paintings, without which my art would be frivolous... music is the love of my life; I still name my paintings with names like adagio, impromptus, and so on," she says.
Avant garde Beauty
Chevalier's painting journey began in Florence, Italy, and reached its summit in London, where she graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Sir Michael Bichard, rector of the University of the Arts London, encountered Chevalier's painting for the first time during a general inspection of the students' studios. He was amazed, and became a collector of Chevalier's work and a strong promoter.
In the world of contemporary art dominated by masculine voices and political agendas, being both female and oriental can be suicidal. Chevalier understands this, but she refused to compromise what she believes to be true and beautiful. "If you submit a work to Saint Martins imitating another painter, no matter how good... your work will end up in the trash bin," she says. Being unique and original is what Chevalier has always insisted upon; she paints her emotion, the philosophy she believes in, her past life stories and the world she longs for.
"I use oil painting techniques and synthetic materials, which are breakthrough in forms. But the theme I present has an affinity to oriental philosophy, which emphasizes more about disposition and attitude, rather than precision or perspective," explains Chevalier.
By using abstract language and the combination of color and forms, the paintings bring people an emotion which Chevalier calls "existential anguish."
"I was advised many times to abandon the formative beauty to create powerful art, I still believe in the aesthetic emotion provoked by beauty. No matter how powerful the emotion resulting from ugliness and disgust may be, it has little to do with... the state of aesthetic exaltation when one loses oneself in, a state of complete joy, of perfect peace," she says.
Reverse culture shock
Chevalier and her family moved back to China in 2007 due to her husband's job. She had to suspend the successful career she had established in London. She seems to be a total stranger in her own birthplace. The alien feeling is not only about Beijing having developed into an international metropolis, but also about the whole infrastructure that artists rely on, including the art market, galleries, art dealers and auction houses. For the past 15 years since Chevalier became a professional painter, she has sold three to four hundred paintings, but none of her collectors are Chinese.
Now she is preparing for her upcoming solo exhibition Oriental Revisited in Today Art Museum from May 26 to 31 organized by the French embassy's cultural department, to introduce her to the Chinese public. "Avant-garde art always keeps a distance from mainstream art, plus the jetlag between China and Europe. Most Chinese collectors only buy paintings they understand. For example, I was invited to an auction in which the painting sold with the highest bid was a naked woman's portrait," says Chevalier. On the other hand, dealing with the art business with Chinese characteristics has become Chevalier's biggest headache, as both public and private museums and galleries charge high prices for exhibitions. According to her, a 15-day exhibition in the National Art Museum of China is 130,000 yuan ($19,000) and Today Art Museum charges about 14,000 yuan per day.
"I filled in an application for the Summer Exhibition in London (at the Royal Academy of Arts), which only cost me £20 (206 yuan). If the committee accepts your works, you can display them for free," says Chevalier. "But in China, the whole business environment is really difficult for Chinese artists to survive, let alone talented art students." For Chevalier, whose works have been successfully displayed at the Summer Exhibition, L'Art en Capital at the Grand Palais and the new Gallery of the Louvre Museum, both in Paris, public museums should provide some platforms for promising artists to show their works without charging them so much.
Chevalier does not lose her moderate humor and cynicism when she mentions the 150,000 yuan she has to pay for her studio every year, "The majority of artists are working for developers, as the money they earn all goes to the rent. They have to rely on their husbands and wives to support them." For more information about Chevalier and her work, please see her website http://email@example.com
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