Shen Jiawei (b.1948) is an artist who was born in China and began to gain recognition as a painter during the Cultural Revolution. Largely self-taught at first, he eventually studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he became strongly influenced by his teacher Shangyi, China’s most famous portraitist. Shen became a specialist in history paintings, many of which he produced for public collections. One picture, however – a depiction of heroes of the Chinese nationalist movement – necessitated his departure from China in 1989. His wife, artist Lan Wang, was pregnant when he left; it was two years before they were reunited in Sydney, where Shen met their daughter Xini for the first time. Having started out making sketches of passers-by at Darling Harbour, Shen is now a much sought-after portraitist, a regular Archibald finalist and has created work for clients such as the Vatican and Parliament House. He has painted commissions of Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Tom Hughes KC and L Gordon Darling AC CMG for the National Portrait Gallery.
‘There are two sides to my work,’ he explains. ‘When I came here I was nothing … so any commission was very exciting. But for a long time now, I’ve been interested in making paintings that show the big things: the world, history, great men.’ To make a picture such as The Third World 2002, depicting 92 identifiable contemporary and historical figures, he spends months in the library, as well as in his studio. He has no plans to return to China, commenting that ‘When I go back I see the worst of communism and the worst of capitalism.’ Shen and Wang both live and work in Bundeena, south of Sydney.
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