Yan Pei-Ming Exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi is a Summer Blast

From July 7 to September 3, the Chinese artist shows us how to embrace reality on a bigger scale. It’s time to rethink images.


By Isabella Chevasco Champsaur. Cover image: Yan Pei-Ming, Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa, 2009. Polyptych oil on canvas, (canvas n. 3) 280 × 280 cm. Private collection. Photography: André Morin. © Yan Pei-Ming, ADAGP, Paris, 2023.

Palazzo Strozzi has just inaugurated its newest exhibition cycle with a show of highlights and recent positions in the work of the Chinese painter Yan Pei-Ming titled Pittore di Storie. He touches upon many topics in politics as well as on more personal works dealing with himself, his family, and mortality. The artist looks death in the eye, and the gallery spectator does it, too.
Like most exhibitions at Palazzo Strozzi, the selection seems venue-specific as they review the history of Italian Novecento through the images that have marked Pei-Ming’s mind. Then there is also the overall commentary on the present political climate. All of this happens through variations of format and colour palette of the paintings based on photos that have already gathered fame and importance of their own.

Yan Pei-Ming’s palette isn’t greyscale only

Passing the courtyard and climbing to the second floor, I was shocked to see that all the walls were white. The Yan Pei-Ming exhibition’s design in Palazzo Strozzi rooms was clean and straightforward, and all the labels for the paintings were integrated into the wall text.
The first contact between the viewer and the artist? An immense grayscale self-portrait, a triptych that shows the artist suspended in slightly varying poses like those usually depicting Christ’s passion.

Yan Pei-Ming, Pape Innocent X bleu (2022), oil on canvas. Photography: Clérin-Morin © Yan Pei-Ming, ADAGP, Paris, 2023.

In the furthest corner of the same room stands a short, amorphous sculpture. It comes straight from Pei-Ming’s studio. It is made of discarded paint that he has allowed to accumulate, through the years, in one wheeled base. Curiously enough, there are colours of all shades and levels of brightness. Although not immediately evident, this is proof that behind all of that, behind the black and white results, the artist also uses colours somewhere in that studio. 

Yan Pei-Ming, Painting Histories, exhibition view at Palazzo Strozzi. Photo: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio.

We also know he paints from pictures. Aside from the grayscale works, many duotone paintings hung as a testament to our perception of colour. Contrary to the primary colours of the printing process, like cyan, yellow and magenta, he focuses on the primary colours of human perception – red, green and blue, like the three light receptors in our eyes. This research on colour is often presented in a series format, with triptychs displayed here in Florence.

Yan Pei-Ming, Painting Histories, exhibition view at Palazzo Strozzi. Photo: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio.

As a visitor, the sequence evoked emotions ranging from the repetition of different colours to focus on the single one, like the triptych based on Jacques Louis-David’s The Death of Marat. It consists of three reproductions of that painting but in green, red and grayscale, whose cinematic sight recalls early Technicolor experiments.

How topics take place in the room: from Death to Gioconda 

The next rooms of Yan Pei-Ming at Palazzo Strozzi include some very personal artworks about the artist’s relationship with death. First, a contemplation of the spirit, with a meditating Buddha across from a painting of the artist’s deceased mother’s face.
Then you pass to the following cube, and there’s an immense portrait of the artist himself on an imagined deathbed, in front of a painting of the artist’s dying father looking back at the viewer. Realising how, one before the other, the father and son were looking at each other was my first gasp in that room. The second happened when I turned to the biggest wall and saw a triptych of the Mona Lisa.

From left to right: Yan Pei-Ming, Bouddha pour ma mère (2023), oil on canvas; Ma mère (2018), oil on canvas. Exhibition view at Painting Histories, Palazzo Strozzi. Photo: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio.

For Yan Pei-Ming, the canvas is a field of action and appropriation. With an almost perfect (and much, much bigger) reproduction of her as the centrepiece, his Gioconda elaborates on the background. The two external thirds are pure speculation of the painting’s Tuscan landscape. They are pure in that they are just extensions of Leonardo da Vinci’s original paintings. 
I have seen the manipulated image of the Gioconda countless times, yet I was shocked to see something that wasn’t so evidently focused on her. Still, the three portraits result in a room of eye contact. The play in dimensions felt wild to me.

Yan Pei-Ming, Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa, 2009. Polyptych oil on canvas. Exhibition view at Painting Histories, Palazzo Strozzi. Photo: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio.

Everyone else seemed to feel a little out of place as well. Maybe because I am used to thinking of these same images in different dimensions. The artist separates the subjects from the scenes he reproduces and places them as isolated figures against open, abstract backgrounds —that’s kind of how he marks his personal touch — with ample impressionist brushstrokes.
All of the works in the show have been showered with dripping paint, also a hallmark of Pei-Ming’s style.

Why in the exhibition Yan Pei-Ming embraces the reproduction of reality 

One of the artist’s primary objectives seems to be delving into key historical elements. Yan Pei-Ming paints images of politicians and revolutionaries, most of whom you may already know. The Palazzo Strozzi exhibition pays tribute to some, while others are depicted in a negative light. Near the end, the show takes a deeper dive into Italian history and politics, featuring images from the deaths of prominent figures like Pierpaolo Pasolini, Aldo Moro and Benito Mussolini.

Yan Pei-Ming, Ostia, due novembre 1975, 2023, oil on canvas, 250 × 300 cm. Courtesy MASSIMODECARLO and Thaddaeus Ropac gallery. Photography: Clérin-Morin. © Yan Pei-Ming, ADAGP, Paris, 2023

The approach is one of presenting the facts as they are, showcasing individuals who played a significant role during those times, and displaying their images in paintings based on photographs taken in that period. These modified versions of familiar images shown back to you, now enlarged in the gallery space, have already changed. 
To amplify the artist’s intentions, Palazzo Strozzi’s curation included a guide to the historical figures portrayed in the paintings. The show directly addresses so many people and stories that context may be a barrier to unfamiliar guests. This is an international venue in a city where people explore things with all levels of interest in the exhibition’s content. 

Yan Pei-Ming, Exécution, après Goya (2012), oil on canvas. Photography: André Morin © Yan Pei-Ming, ADAGP, Paris, 2023.

In these times of simultaneous pain and numbness, this show refreshed my perception of the modern world and its history. Reading through the texts of the show, I was shocked by the immensity of these paintings and how straightforward the images are. 

Isabella Chevasco Champsaur is an Arts Curating undergraduate student at Istituto Marangoni Firenze.

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