Li Chevalier (1961)
Born in Beijing in 1961, Li Chevalier grew up in a China dispossessed of its ancestral traditions and education system by the Cultural Revolution. The army - at the time the only institution to offer education - recruited her at the age of fifteen for her beautiful soprano voice, and she drew in her spare time. She was demobilised after five years - universities having been re-established following the death of Mao - and threw herself into the study of international economics:"the best prospect for going abroad". She married a Frenchman and arrived in France in the middle of the 1980s. Time at Sciences Po and studies in political philosophy at the Sorbonne were then essential, as she needed to understand what constituted the foundations of power in our democracies, as a perspective on the Maoist dictatorship.
During a stay in Florence, the discovery of Renaissance art had an impact that determined her vocation as a painter and fervently committed her to look for Beauty, which she had been deprived of for so long. But at the Central Saint Martins College of Arts in London – from where she graduated – she discovered a new dictatorship, the aesthetic transgression that had come into force since the revolution brought about Michel Duchamp: it was the beginning of a fight against this aspect of contemporary art, whether in China or in the West.
Crossing from one country to the other, at first Li Chevalier adopted Western forms of expression and the practice of oil painting. But in 2003 she felt the need to use her Asian roots to enrich her art, thanks to a two year stay in Japan: affected by the sober forms of the Zen aesthetic that impregnated the environment, the artist revived traditional Chinese ink painting to create a pictorial art that was both resolutely innovative and Chinese. In this way she integrated the movement in experimental Ink art which had developed in China since the beginning of the 1980s.
Although the surface was no longer rice paper or silk, but a Western canvas, and although she also developed mixed-media techniques learned in Europe – notably sand, collage, some pigments – Li Chevalier's paintings from then on reveal a certain relation to traditional Asian landscape art.
This started with their form which showed great economy of means – a minimal number of forms and colours, but infinitely nuanced thanks to the power of the ink – as well as harmonious curves and a flow of contours for a combination of light and shade, and rhythm created by areas left blank and others of variable density, whilst practising 'the controlled accident', the principle of the small detail giving depth to the whole. There is the absence of artifice, in harmony with the Tao which aims at asceticism until it spontaneously reaches the essence of the gesture, driven by the energy of the universe in an appeal to intuition and not to the intellect: "Seizing the world must be done without action." (Lao Tsu)
Li Chevalier's works display what a Westerner would define as a powerful poetic intensity, where someone from the East would quite obviously perceive them as an invitation to meditation, a means of rising above worldly concerns on the path to internal peace and harmony with the universe. This Chan philosophy – known in Japan as Zen – is very influenced by Taoism, and is attached to notions of modesty and ambiguity, of the illusory and the ephemeral, quite opposed to those of grandeur, eternity and the absolute valued by the West: can the human being, a tiny part of this world, have any certainties regarding his comprehension of the universe...?
'Landscape beyond landscape', jing wai jing 景外景 when formulated in Chinese: it is true that the world shaped by Li Chevalier opens onto the infinite and interiority at the same time. It emerges from a continuous hesitation between figuration and abstraction, a hesitation that is present in the interpenetration of opposites – loyal to the ancient pictorial principles of Yin and Yang – but also in the philosophical significance of the work, oscillating between the East and the West, as the titles of the works seem to suggest.
Alongside pictures that are Zen in essence (La Voix du silence 'Voice of Silence', 2006; Voie 'Way', 2011; L'illusion de lumière 'Illusion of Light', 2015; Deux Rives 'Two Shores', 2015; Solitude qui habite l'homme 'Solitude which haunts man', 2015; Le Vide 'The Void', 2015, L'Homme qui médite vit dans l'obscurité 'The Man who meditates lives in obscurity', 2016,) appear canvases evoking western notions (Noumène 'Noumenon', 2011; Volonté 'Will', 2014), whilst others issue from the artist questioning her own journey, whether past – Au-delà de l'horizon 'Beyond the Horizon', 2010, where the question mark refers to the reason for a regime like Maoism that destroys man and his culture – or present: the confrontation of Eastern and Western philosophical concepts represented by the interaction of the circle, a symbol of emptiness and completeness in Zen Buddhism; the 'torii' or Japanese portico that separates the physical and spiritual worlds; and the Christian cross, revealed to her by some Dominicans during a stay in Sienna (La Tolérance du Vide 'Tolerance of the Void', 2008; Agnosticisme, 2010; Finitude 'Finiteness' 2010; La Foi 'The Faith', 2010; Dogme et Tao 'Dogma and Tao', 2011 La théologie, La philosophie, l'Homme-Dieu 'Theology, Philosophy, Man-God', 2013; L'Entre 'The Inbetween', 2015; L'Origine du monde 'The origin of the world', 2015). Although Christian love for the Other appeals to her, Li Chevalier nevertheless constantly fears the excesses of any great project of society that aims to 'transform' man, namely the risk of reifying him and this destroying 'his desire for the beautiful'.
Her fears owing to the violence of the past (contained sometimes in the title, such as Volonté de puissance, 'Will of power', 2014) and her rebellion in the face of Beauty that has been forbidden or denied, endure and shape her canvases, "always by suggesting it, never by imposing it", in an insatiable search for a lost or forbidden ideal that seems to merge artistically with the Chan 'silence of the infinite'.
Li Chevalier's pictorial art resonates with this philosophy but she admits that her personal development is complex: "My soul is filled with one gram of patience and a tonne of passion"; "I knowingly – and without regret - come from the path of Eastern wisdom that advocates balance and detachment, and Christ's Via Dolorosa that crowns Passion and Redemption."
A canvas that is now in the French Embassy in China – Symphony of Destiny, 2010 – seems, with its universal theme, to effectively combine the poles of East and West whilst at the same time evoking music (specifically Beethoven's Fifth Symphony), the artist's other passion and means of attaining "the beautiful and the harmonious [which] can (...) reinvent itself in a thousand ways": she continued to sing, and joined the choir of the Paris Orchestra to perform in Europe under the baton of prestigious conductors such as Semyon Bychkov.
The artist's passion for music was such that it eventually became a compelling part of her work: already present in a number of titles of her canvases – La nuit transfigurée ('Transfigured Night' from Schönberg), Sacre du printemps ('Rite of Spring' from Stravinsky) I hear the water dreaming (from Takemitsu) etc.. – it takes pride of place in monumental installations organised around a vast number of Western-style violins, the backs of which have been decorated with scenes or calligrammes. Musica Dolorosa evokes her past as a singer in China: the violins suspended from the trees of a forest or littering the ruins of a pagoda are notably decorated with inward-looking figures or faces with closed eyes. But Visual Symphony (2013), an installation of violins hanging amongst scrolls of parchment decorated with calligraphy, illustrates the bridge that the artist wants to 'officially' establish between the two cultures. It was staged at the Chinese National Opera – built by the Frenchman Paul Andreu in Beijing – with Frédéric Laroque (solo violinist for the Paris Opera) improvising as he passed through the installation, before the inaugural concert directed by Philippe Joran (Musical Director of the Paris Opera). She renewed the experiment in 2014 for the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and China: at the Submarine Base (Contemporary Art Centre) in Bordeaux, Cantabile per archi – the title of a piece of music by the Latvian Peteris Vask – was used as a setting for a concert by a string quartet from the Paris Opera.
The style of the installation seems to indicate a change in direction in Li Chevalier's artistic practice, no doubt in line with a new momentum:"I am smitten by the absolute"; "Today I am on the point of abandoning the concept of Zen, for art is this thirst for the absolute"; "The artist in search of the absolute is condemned to 'die' from passion, as Christ did, with the hope of being resurrected through one's work."
But will she give up eastern philosophy..? "I choose art as a source of spiritual retreat, without the conviction of one day attaining prolonged inner peace."
(Martine Heudron)read more >>
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