Of all the artists of the early Qing Dynasty, Lang Shining stood out for combining Western techniques (the use of perspective and realism) with Chinese painting styles.
Lang, in fact, was the adopted Chinese name of Giuseppe Castiglione. The Italian Jesuit arrived in China in 1715 and though forbidden to preach stayed in China until his death 51 years later (never seeing his native land again).
He was kept busy, mind you, serving as a royal court painter for three Qing emperors. He painted some of the most famous portraits of the time and even designed part of the Summer Palace.
But three centuries on a Chinese artist is taking the opposite path to Castiglione.
Who is he?
Shen Jiawei was born in 1948 in Shanghai. His hope of attending art school was dashed when Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution. That meant one of the few places left for displaying Shen’s self-taught talents was the Chinese army’s propaganda department. Fortunately, his 1974 work Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland scored rave reviews from Mao’s wife. The painting was given a print format and 250,000 posters made it a familiar image all over the country. A propaganda song of the same name was produced afterwards, helping to make Shen a household name.
Why is he in the news?
Shen looks to have emerged as the Vatican’s unofficial portrait artist.
After the Cultural Revolution concluded Shen began painting historical figures and moments. He left China in 1989 for Australia where he charged tourists $30 a pop to do their portraits. But when Mary MacKillop was beatified by John Paul II in 1995, Shen’s 1994 portrait of the nineteenth century nun caught the attention of Australian church officials.
Last year Shen painted the first official portrait of the current pontiff Pope Francis. And recently he completed a painting of arguably the second most powerful man in Rome, Cardinal George Pell.
“For me, one door closed but another always opened,” Shen says of his extraordinary journey from military propagandist to papal portraitist.
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