The Rape of the Sabine Women, a scene of conspiracy, war and love, is the representative work of French artist Jacques-Louis David, a cynical Jacobin who did a turn in prison after the Thermidor Reaction of 1794.
Contemporary artist Zhang Kai re-imagines that work in The Rabbits of David, where the original Roman-inspired backgrounds, figures and shapes are replaced by wilderness, rabbits and fruits.
“David intended to express turmoil, radical thought and unease in his painting. I try to turn those feelings upside down by using timid rabbits, rich fruits, open fields and mountains,” Zhang says.
Such appropriation dominates his early works. Zhang’s I Fold the Love Letter into a Ship and The Last Supper are similar nods to the work of Johannes Vermeer and Leonardo Da Vinci.
The use of “appropriation” as a creative method appeared in the mid-19th century. It became a dominant branch of post-modern art in the 1960s. Unlike simple imitation, artists put old images into new context to create a new concept based on existing patterns.
“Everyone has his own understanding when sees the masterpieces of Western art. I’m trying to use these images to express an Oriental thought using a new layout and content,” Zhang says. “It’s also a way for me to show my respect to my favorite masters.”
Johannes Vermeer is Zhang’s favorite artist. One of Holland’s greatest painters, Vermeer was also a lover of appropriation. In his painting A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, viewers can find Dirck Van Baburen’s The Procuress on the wall. Vincent van Gogh similarly appropriated the Japanese Ukiyo-e style in many of his paintings.
Zhang expands the scope of his work in The Quiet Field, a non-appropriation in which pebbles consist of a wide field and two cats arrive holding candles.
“Pebbles appear ordinary in the field. I’m trying to praise their simplicity as both ordinary and great,” he says.
Nevertheless, cats and rabbits dominate the body of Zhang’s work. When creating Seeking or Meeting You, Zhang reflected for a long time about why cats and rabbits have become his subjects.
Born in 1985 in Shanxi, Zhang studied art at Academy of Fine Arts of Shanxi Normal University and graduated in 2007. His present style formed during university.
“Our generation is relatively isolated because most of us are the only child. We grew up in an era of cartoons and the Internet. I latched onto cats for their mysterious elegance and rabbits for their timidity and vigor,” Zhang says.
“In fact, cats and rabbits are the metaphors of myself. Their images are very close to the scenes I want to show.”
His favorite artists are mostly post-impressionists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. Their large areas of bright color and subjective shapes can more easily draw children’s eyes, he said.
During high school, he started to study impressionism. Afterward, he realized the solemn and mysterious classicism was a better fit for his quiet character.
“Even though various artists can be classified from their expression approaches, the content and emotion is what matters. In my mind, Vermeer and Morandi are in the same category because they both express peace and balance. Jan Van Eyck and Yayoi Kusama are also the same because of their interest in piety and bigotry,” Zhang says.
“I’m sure my painting style will continue to vary with my time and mood. When I find a good idea, I go with it,” he says. “I feel blessed to be doing what I like, so I will continue my art with great devotion.”