Chang Lei's series of oil paintings, The Sanguinary Shadows of Chinese Civilization, depicts traditional Chinese cultural figures, objects and sites, infused with splashes of bright and dark colours. Among the images painted by Chang are the Great Wall, ancient Chinese ceramics, Decree with Terracotta Warrior, Chinese opera figures and deities, and famous historical characters.

The figures emerge from a splatter of darkness and float in an ethereal way within the canvas. The monochrome brushstrokes recall traditional Chinese ink painting although they also reveal a modern abstract touch. While the splashes of black paint are misty and convey a dramatic sense of uncertainty, the figures appearing from obscurity are sophisticated and meticulously depicted. The images are then subtly bespattered with red, alluding to the more sinister undertones of the artist's intent.

Through stark contrasts between sombre background tones and glowing highlights of the subjects Chang Lei's paintings delve into the history of China. The artist is attempting to analyse its cultural richness from a critical and thorough perspective. Hence his paintings evoke both positive and negative sides that have marked the course of the centuries, thus aiming to achieve 'the truth'. In this sense Chang is searching for the beauty of truth and his female figures are not only charming icons of the Beijing opera but they also seem to allegorise the romantic ideal of “beauty is truth and truth is beauty”[1].

In light of this although Chang's paintings are gracefully rendered they also reveal dark sides of mankind, suggesting what is hidden behind the glorious surface of culture. And yet, these cultural creations and figures remain before our eyes. Charming and breathtaking they disclose a tainted beauty, revealing Chang's ability of accomplishing the artist's mission once appointed by Dante: to explore both hell and paradise at the same time.[2]

  • [1] John Keats (1795 – 1821) in Ode on a Grecian Urn, first published in 1819
  • [2] Cheng François, Cinq Méditations sur la Beauté, Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 2006