In the West, portraiture is a well-established category in art history. For a long time, especially before photography, portraiture was highly functional, with artists commissioned by patrons to depict themselves or others as a record of appearance and as a symbol of status. At that time, the portrait style often meets the client’s requirements, almost realistic and detailed. However, in modern times, the connotation and meaning of portraits have become more complex, the boundary has become more blurred and flexible, and more schools and individual languages have been incorporated, breaking the rigor and harmony established by the tradition.
In terms of technique alone, figure painting is generally acknowledged to be more difficult, and portraiture is one category of it. First, structure, features, expression and action need to be fixed in one frame. In a face, the eyebrows, eyes, ears, nose and mouth seem to take up only a few inches, but the slightest mistake is easy to detect. Second, unlike still life subject, the subject of portrait painting is dynamic and living, which can change rapidly in one second. Especially in face to face, this uncertainty tests the painter and makes the process full of excitement and challenge.
Tong Yanrunan has been creating portraits of the same size and style for 26 years, all of which are based on sketching. His painting is revealing, flowing and full of rhythm of life. The painter and the subject, the two different faces that provide the existence of this space, can trigger the repeated mapping and free collision from the inside out and then from the outside in... Isn’t this also a unique performance art?
Tong Yanrunan often explains his methodology by the story “Pao Ding skillfully dismembering an ox”. He uses his painting brush just like using a knife, and the knife cut deep into the bone. It somehow reminds me of Francis Bacon, a painter who was also keen to dissect the insides. In contrast, Tong Yanrunan’s painting style is more peaceful, which is closely related to his enduring speculation on oriental philosophy. The ancient world view and thoughts of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi are the source of his ideas. Through perceptual subjective initiative, he tries to recognize, observe, explore “art” and “Taoism”. At the same time, he still takes the specific object as the foothold. The “subject” thus presented seems to be void, but in fact it is concrete. Finally, he quietly returned to the painter’s original and portrait’s original.
Director of Suzhou Museum
There has been a contradiction concerning the multidimensional interaction between man and nature, as well as between man and the universe in the history of human development, from the philosopher Protagoras’ saying “Man is the measure of all things” in Greek, to the humanistic spirit centered on human beings in the Italian Renaissance. Tong Yanrunan has remained the same portrait creation all long, reflecting on the nihility of human nature, appreciate the persistence of each individual life and perceive the portrait beyond the image. The unchanging portrait creating style in the past 25 years is an enlightening experience for him to responses to the frivolous concepts of contemporary art transformed, and deconstructs the world of materialization that is laterally expanding and changing. This is the way for Tong Yanrunan to reflect on himself. It is also a symbol of experiencing the pure return with superior perception as an individual.
Throughout the movement of brush strokes and the sprinkling of colors, we feel an invigoration extracted from desultoriness in the portrait paintings created by Tong Yanrunan. The subtle details of all characters are expressed with his inner thoughts, and each stroke is filled with the passion of life. It is the free solidification of the inner emotions between him and the model on the canvas. His techniques of portrait has transcended some that of oil painting, containing his unique understanding of life and spiritual insights. As Hegel said, “Art transforms every detail of the visual appearance in providing a locus for the self-images of the eyes or the mind, and so a place for content.”
Viewing his oil paintings, it seems that Tong Yanrunan is looking for a window to show his own understanding of human nature, and express his unique emotions about human nature and the universe. His maintenance of creative state of free and smooth expression of feelings makes his works show strong characteristics of the times. As for the painting language, he finds out a multi-dimensional channel between human nature and the universe. He emphasizes images and even beyond them, thereby lifts the works to a philosophical level, to express the spirit created by himself. The spirit, as the essence of art, makes him even more remarkable.
By Ji Yunfei, at 3:08 a.m., Mar. 5th, 2023