Chen Ke: Bauhaus Gal - Theatre | Perrotin

I was talking to a colleague the other day, who mentioned she’d spend some time in Beijing over the Christmas break. Sounds nice, I said. It’s unbearably, unbearably cold, she responded. It was pretty cold in Paris, too, when I came across this exhibition from Beijing-based painter Chen Ke. Part of the magic of visual art is that sometimes, when viewing, you’re taken somewhere different; in this case, it was 100 years ago, around the opening of the Bauhaus school, with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in cinemas, swooshy streamlined apartment buildings under construction, and avant garde furniture gleaming behind new plate-glass shopfronts.

Both viewer and artist, in their gallery and their studio, are a world away from the scenes in these paintings. Far, far from the bitter Beijing winter, Chen’s warmly-hued works seem to exist in an eternal hopeful springtime. They feature signs and signals of go-ahead modernity: Maria the robot, the Barcelona chair and that legendary rectilinear building in Dessau. The ‘gals’ of the show’s title, beautiful, impassive-looking young women with bobbed hair and cool knitwear were taken from archive photographs of female Bauhaus students, in a Taschen book owned by the artist.

Chen Ke ‘Bauhaus Gal No.23’ (2023) Bauhaus Gal No.23 (2023)

These images are objects of pure fantasy, then. That said, the bravery and determination of the 1920s gals must be reflected, in some way, in their creator: that she had a fantasy, and dared to solidify it on canvas, for others to look at.

Chen originally called this show Utopia, before reconsidering. Life was no picnic for a woman going to university in the 1920s, regardless of how cool they looked. Adding a single word, Theatre to the title also undercuts the fantasy, lending a certain critical distance to the artist’s stance.

I personally think she should have stuck with Utopia. These fantasy gals, lit up in unreal colours, surrounded by beautiful modernity, don’t deserve to be burdened by day-to-day societal oppression. Even if that’s what the models in those Taschen book photographs actually faced, day-to-day. Certainly, as I looked at the gals, I felt the chill of the Parisian winter seeping away. I was somewhere else.

I bet Chen felt the same when she painted them, on the other side of the world, in another century…

Chen Ke: Bauhaus Gal - Theatre is at Perrotin (Paris). 14 October 2023 - 13 January 2024