A Portraitist For The Selfie Age

February 24, 2015 1:58 PM

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A Portraitist For The Selfie Age

Traditional Chinese portraiture is all about soul. To be more precise, it's about chi-yun-sheng-tung, translation: "breath-resonance-life-motion." Also known as "spirit resonance," the painting principle is the most provocative of six legendary rules enshrined by a 6th century critic, Hsieh Ho (the others are more concrete, describing how to arrange images, and hold brushes). By Ho's reckoning, portraitists had an almost divine calling: to see the life force vibrating inside their subject, and make us see it too.

This begs the question: does the Chinese portraitist Mao Yan break rules, or follow them? Take the Yan portrait above. The subject, a flesh-and-blood man named Xiao Dai, looks more mythical than real. He is almost a comic book character, campily posed in a way that arguably undermines the painting's...

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