Shan-Yuan (The Stories of Destiny Painted on a Fan)
Peng Wei

A friend painted a fan, gave it to me as a gift and said, “Why don’t you try it, too?” Since ancient times, fan paintings have been objects of elegance. Styles and approaches were handed down through generations in a repetitive and undifferentiated deluge. I did not want to join that list.

I suddenly recalled some early Renaissance frescos that I have admired; and thought it might be amusing to paint scenes from Western paintings onto traditional tuan shan (moon-shaped fans). I impulsively laid down some lines with my inked brush, applying muted tones. One stroke followed another; I was unable to stop.

I found myself entering into an entirely new experience — using quintessentially Chinese traditional tapestry portraiture techniques to paint Westerners. The Chinese sketching style gave these Western faces an air of the Orient.

The form of tuan shan lends itself to capturing a vignette (frame of view), which evokes my own visual focal point when I look at works of Western classical painting. I would choose only the sections that captivated me: perhaps a humorous face, a group of impassioned singers, a self-satisfied handsome fellow, a garishly bejeweled lady, a little dog sitting by its master, or extravagant ornaments. Whatever narratives these paintings may have intended recede into the background, or are even completely altered: the Madonna is just a common girl; the baby Jesus appears as a mischievous child; Samson is merely a man on the point of exhaustion. In them, I see living people.

Some say that fans are merely small objects d’art. I disagree. Though they are small, they are not to be dismissed as decorative objects. The Song Dynasty fan portraits are all marvelous in their own right, more captivating than the chaotic grandeur of some famous masterpieces.

Others have remarked that these works no longer seem like Chinese paintings, which surprises me. If we paint Western faces, do the paintings become Western? My preoccupation is to find within the space of tuan shan a new position for Western classical paintings that hold fascination for me. These paintings exist betwixt the East and West, between the foreign and familiar, amid legend and reality.