Wei Dong has gained fame for his controversial paintings of nude women in outlandish poses and weird settings.
Most of his works in this style evoke eroticism, but they also tend to raise eyebrows and draw snickers.
They may appear mischievous, but they are always well-crafted, meticulous in details.
They exhibit the artist’s flair for European classicism: naked Chinese women become Botticelli figures set against a Boschian scene.
According to Wei, all he wanted to do was bring out his melancholy and fears through the expression of primitive desires.
But he admits he has mellowed. “I am no longer young, and I no longer scream and cry for other people’s attention. I would just like to quietly attract listeners by telling my stories. Fear and anxiety are still here, but they have become subtler,” Wei explains.
Wei traces his angsts to his childhood years. In school, he often felt he was the odd man out. He didn’t excel academically.
Painting provided the only outlet for self-expression, the only way he could gain a little self-respect.
“Good students were unwilling to talk to me, as if I could inflict my ‘stupidity’ on them. I had no friends and got alienated. Only when I drew pictures, people would surround me and talk to me, awarding me with a little sense of respect.”
Pursuing his studies, Wei took up fine arts at the university. But college life didn’t provide much solace.
His rebellious nature didn’t endear him to his teachers. He hated constraints and did the exact opposite of what his teachers told him.
He used curved lines when his teacher asked him to use straight lines only. In figure drawings, he started by doing the eyes, instead of doing the outline to get the right proportions.
“I always did it the wrong way, and it took me a long time to get the figures right. Anyway, I could also do it the right way.”
Teachers labeled him a bad student, and Wei lived up to their expectation. He went to class to have his attendance taken, and left.
Instead of listening to classroom lectures and doing tedious exercises, Wei bought books on European and Oriental masters, and learned their painting techniques by copying their works.
At one time, he was able to copy nearly all the works of the four masters of the Ming Dynasty.
His efforts gave him a strong foundation for his current landscape works.
“I found it easier to communicate with the masters,” says Wei. “I was so obsessed and I maniacally thirsted for knowledge. I found the way to satisfy my yearning for education that the school couldn’t offer me.”
Sexuality was the recurring motif in Wei’s early works.
“Why should so many people evade sex? The body itself is beautiful, but people try their best to cover it,” he observes.
“Hence, in my early works, I presented it openly, but little people were thinking the same way as I did. Though my works were getting powerful, the viewership was becoming smaller. I started to consider making my paintings subtler.”
He sees this gradual change in his works as a sign of his growing maturity. He believes his subtler expression is even more powerful.
In the ’90s, Wei created works with strong visual contrasts by painting modern-day people in incongruously traditional landscapes.
From 2001, when he moved to New York, his works started to bear an unmistakable western quality.
Since last year, Wei has based himself in Beijing. “I stay in the United States for holiday, but I stay in China for work.”
He has reduced his output, which enables to devote more time to each work.
Wei’s decision to return to traditional Chinese landscapes is a tribute to his beloved father.
“He didn’t give me much money or an affluent life, but he equipped me with a free spirit,” says Wei.
Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, Wei witnessed how his father and a group of art enthusiasts secretly gathered for art appreciation sessions where they viewed and discussed foreign artworks.
“My father would like to express himself through painting all his life; however, due to many reasons, he could only treat it as a pastime,” he said.
When he was a small kid, Wei and his father painted together. One day, when Wei was 14, his father decided to give away all his drawing tools and albums to his son and announced that he had quit painting.
And so Wei took up the challenge and became a painter. However, his father found it hard to understand his works.
“After seeing those big and weird erotic figures, he didn’t say they were good or bad. He simply asked if I could paint him a landscape without those figures on the foreground.”
Wei told his father he would do such a work, but he remembered his promise only a year after his father died.
That’s why he started doing landscape paintings. And instead of painting nudes in weird settings as he did in the ’90s, Wei introduced figures that blend harmoniously with serene landscapes.
“People thought that I have to safeguard Chinese culture as I have started painting traditional landscapes. I first found it ridiculous as they simply have overestimated me … An artist must pursue freedom, he favors nobody in the act of creation,” he says.
But at the same time, he could not turn his back on his heritage. “Chinese paintings are my roots as I grew up with them. There was a time when I would like to go out and see the world. Now it’s time to return.”
The art exhibition — Crossroads: Wei Dong — is being hosted by Sotheby’s Hong Kong until August 8. It showcases his collection of artworks between 1996 and 2015.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 5.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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