Every artist eventually has to decide whether they want to make money or be themselves. But that question was never a struggle for 26-year-old Zhang Beibei. From a young age she was determined to create without bending to other’s desires.
A glance through Zhang’s portfolio reveals nothing extravagant, dazzling or abstract. In each image, Zhang records her feelings with sincerity and a respect for reality.
“I admire realistic oil paintings. They could reflect the nature of things because they require the painter to view the world sincerely and employ excellent technique,” Zhang said. “But if you favor the realistic element too heavily, your painting will lose its expressiveness. I prefer to add stories to my works, leaving the spoon-fed worldview behind to construct my own.”
Beijing supplies Zhang with endless inspiration. She records what she sees and relates each new experience to a memory. Each painting is created with nothing but a paintbrush with her imagination as a guide.
Zhao Zilong once commented on Zhang Beibei, “She always faces the world and herself with genuine emotions… I’m often surprised by how she uses such direct and simple words to reveal the truth of things. The sophistication, logic and uniqueness reflected in her works is beyond her age.”
One of her most intriguing works, Inglorious Death, depicts a dead, headless sparrow. The feathers on its stiff body seemed loose and very detailed. Zhang said one’s understanding of death reveals his or her true self, since nobody could be superficial in front of death.
“I am a realistic person. Perhaps ‘Death’ is a strange topic for people my age, but I want to face it through painting,” Zhang said. “Writer Shi Tiesheng said that once a person is born life stops being an option, but sooner or later death will be certain. Thinking about death this way makes me more grateful to be alive.”
Zhang started her artistic journey quite early. She was accepted into the Xi’an High School of Art at 16 and went back to the city where she was born. When she saw her childhood doodles on the walls, she was amazed how her naïve imagination could create such complicated content.
“I believe everybody has his or her own ‘nature’ that is formed when first receiving complex information from this world. I’ve always used painting as a way to think and express my understandings of self, society, generation, history and humanity,” she said.
At the beginning, two historical figures influenced Zhang: Vincent van Gogh and Sandro Botticelli. Zhang said both of their styles were independent of the mainstream of their times.
“A great artist does not need to have the right time, opportunity or school. I admire their heroism from deep in my heart, and I think they unleashed the creative power of humanity.”
Zhang said her art is independent of education, policy, popular trends and social rules. She said her paintings had more personality and freedom than she herself.
She studied oil painting at Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, later enrolling in Central Academy of Fine Arts with emphasis in tempera and material painting. Among Zhang’s works are two religious paintings in tempera.
“The language of oil painting chooses artists, not the other way around. It requires us to be technical, realistic and pragmatic,” Zhang said. “When I went to Europe to see the paintings in churches, I could clearly feel the artists’ genuine belief in God. Each character’s detailed and unique emotions were visible.”
Inspired by classical European oil paintings, Zhang attempted to understand why they could harness such strong emotions. She found the aspirations of oil painting in tempera, a far older medium.
“To understand the history and the spirit of classical European painting, you must study tempera,” Zhang said. “My tempera paintings were not created for religion, but for my own belief. And I see religion and belief as two different matters.”
Believers in heroism seldom enjoy comfortable lives. But in this century of open communication and Internet, Zhang has an outlet for her work.
Zhang is not bounded by fame, complicated relationships or money worries. She appreciates that she can devote her time to crafting what she desires to express. She also hopes that her works will remain independent, her worldviews extraordinary and her artistic language rich with technique, style and expression.
For an artist with her attitudes, being alive to work in the 21st century offers “luxurious freedom”.