Artist Yan Pei-Ming makes vast pandemic painting Pandémie (2020)

Gérard Rancinan, panel from the Yan Pei Ming Triptyque, 2010, private collection. Phillips Auction House

Artist Yang Pei-Ming will present the huge picture of the Covid-19 pandemic next month. The painting draws inspiration from the Isenheim Altar, a masterpiece of religious art painted between 1512 and 1516 by the German artist Matthias Grunewald.

The painting, titled Pandémie (2020), will be shown at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France, as part of its first retrospective (In the Name of the Father, April 2 – September 6; subject to Covid-19 restrictions).

The coronavirus-themed painting, in which the artist stands over a corpse in a corpse bag, is a pendant in dialogue with a medieval altar housed in the museum. The 11 painted scenes on the altar were commissioned by the Antonito Monastery to treat sick peasants and plague victims in Isenheim, a village south of Colmar.

They include striking depictions of monsters and devils torturing Saint Anthony and the plague-tormented body of Jesus on the cross, all typical of late Gothic art in the Rhine Valley. From the outset, Pandémie was conceived as a confrontation with the Isenheim Altar, echoing Grunewald’s panels of the Crucifixion, the statement said.

Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (around 1515), Unterlinden Museum, Colmar

Explaining aspects of the painting, artist Yan Pei-Ming says that he gives an interpretation of an era in which he did not live, as well as today’s Covid, an imaginary image. It is black, dark, the color of coal. He is in the picture, wearing a mask. He is not a doctor or a nurse – what can he do to help fight Covid? Two cats live near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; cats are often symbolically associated with healing.

The religious artwork was painted during a second quarantine in France from November to mid-December when curfews were imposed across the country. The viewer may be shocked. This is life today. It can be painful and very hard, but today the Covid pandémie 2020 has affected everyone, including the artist, his family, and friends. We see no end – will it be in two years, five years, 20 years? This is unthinkable, adds artist Yan Pei-Ming.

He also did other work during his isolation, including Self-Portrait with a Mask (2020), which was shown at the Thaddeus Ropak Gallery in Salzburg earlier this year. Meanwhile, an upcoming retrospective in Colmar will feature some 50 works, including a drawing by his grandmother when he was 15 and images of his father and mother.

Artist Yan Pei-Ming says that this is the first time he presents these early works together with paintings from the age of 35. Exhibition curator Frederic Gehrig-Hergott said in a statement that the museum’s intention is to lift the curtain on Yan Pei-Ming, a renowned Chinese-born artist whose figurative and expressive work, sometimes in the form of polyptychs, presents themes of origin, sacrifice, and the sacred that are present in the Isenheim altar.

Yang Pei-Ming, an artist with international recognition

The artist Yan Pei-Ming with Self-portrait with Mask (2020)

Yang Pei-Ming has gained international recognition primarily for his portraits, which include images of many contemporary figures such as politicians, actors, and dads. Some of his most famous works depict Mao Zedong, Bruce Lee, and Barack Obama. Along with these public figures and against them, the portraits of Yan Pei-Ming extend to the portraits of his family, as well as to himself.

His work covers a wide range of topics, including history and current events, such as the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 or the reinterpretation of iconic works of art history. The artist’s work is invariably associated with the history of European painting and portraiture.

The illustration of status and power in traditional portraiture is particularly important for his work, which reconnects with the archetypes of centuries of depictional conventions. In the era of inflationary reproduction and digital exploitation, its objects express the contradiction between traditional forms and modern relevance, which allows them to be interpreted both at the classical and at the modern level.

Although the Shanghai-born artist defines himself as a European artist in both style and subject matter, in recent years he has increasingly drawn to his Chinese cultural heritage combined with the Western tradition of portraiture.

Artist Yan Pei-Ming is best known for his huge and almost exclusively monochrome portraits based on the history of Chinese culture and Western portraiture traditions. Some of his most famous portraits include Mao Zedong, Bruce Lee, and Barack Obama. Along with these public figures and against them, the portraits of Pei-Ming extend to those of his father as well as of himself.

Yan Pei Ming, Mao on the balcony, 2000, private collection. Christie’s

At the age of 19, artist Yang Pei-Ming decided to move to France. There, he enrolled at the prestigious National School of Fine Arts in Dijon. He graduated from college in 1986, achieving rapid success with his expressive portraiture.

Yan Pei Ming paintings are executed with energy and imagination, they consist of expressive strokes and a predominantly monochrome palette with rare manifestations of dark red.

Yan Pei Ming, Exécution, Après Goya, 2008, Lovre-Lens Museum, Lens, France

In 2003 artist Yan Pei-Ming received international recognition at the Venice Biennale. In 2003 he received international recognition at the Venice Biennale.

Six years later, Yan Pei Ming paintings were acquired by the Louvre, where he exhibited a collection of portraits that attempted to convey his personal vision of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

Yan Pei Ming, Bruce Lee – Fighting Spirit, 2012, private collection. Source: Christie’s


In 2009, Yan was the first Chinese artist ever to exhibit at the French Louvre. He presented a polyptych entitled The Funerals of Mona Lisa, composed of a portrait of a crying Mona Lisa, a portrait of Yan’s dead father, and three self-portraits: two showing Yan’s skull and the third showing him on his deathbed.

The theme of death appears very often in Yan’s work since he says that the death of Mao Zedong when Yan was 16 marked him for life. Artist Yan Pei-Ming adds that he is obsessed with executions and man’s capability to kill another man. Hence, he frequently paints his dead parents and long-gone individualities from the world of art, politics, and pop culture.

Artist Yang Pei-Ming became known for his “epic size” portraits, including those featuring Mao Zedong, Bruce Lee, and his father. The red self-portrait is installed at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.


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