Jiawei Shen is one of Australia's leading portrait artists. The Weekend Australian of April 16, 2005 placed him first out of ten Chinese Australians to have made great contributions to the nation's culture, academe and business. The newspaper further commented: "JiaweiShen has painted some of Australia's most prominent citizens, but the commission that will add lustre to his name is the portrait of Denmark's Crown Princess Mary destined for the National Portrait Gallery."
Born in Shanghai in 1948, Shen came to prominence as a celebrated realist history painter in the mid-1970s. His milestone work, Standing Guard for our Great Motherland (1974), was praised by Madame Mao, ultimately resulting - because of the subsequent dramatic political changes in China - in half a million copies being made in the late 1970s and then in the painting nearly being destroyed in 1981. The painting was finally recovered and restored by the artist and exhibited in the famous 'China: 5000 years' exhibition, at both the New York and Bilbao branches of the Guggenheim Museum in 1998, and again in New York, in the exhibition 'Art and China Revolution' at the Asia Society Museum in 2008. In 2009 this painting was sold for $1,000,000 by China Guardian Auctions in Beijing.
Another important work from this period, Climbing over the Great Snow Mountain (1977), is now in the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, USA. The 1980s saw production of several important works which are all now in the National Art Museum of China and the National Museum of China, both in Beijing. These include the eleven metre canvas Red Star over China (1987) which portrays more than a hundred figures of historic importance, and his great liberalist painting Tolerance (1988).
Shen started painting in childhood. He is self-taught - thanks to Chairman Mao's closure of all universities from 1966 till Mao's death in 1976. Shen volunteered to be a soldier farmer in Manchuria near the Russian border in 1970 and began his artistic career in this region. It was only from1982 to 1984 that the artist was able to receive a formal polishing of his already formidable talent at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Afterwards he worked as a professional artist in the Liaoning Art Studio. During this time he won first place and several other prizes at the National Art Exhibitions, as well as countless provincial art awards. He is still regarded as China's leading history painter, although he emigrated to Australia in 1989.
Commissions from China continue: in 2000 from the National Military Museum and in 2003 from the City Museum in his hometown of Jiaxing. He was also an invited participant in the Beijing International Art Biennale in 2003 and 2005.
In 1989, with 45 dollars in his pocket, Jiawei Shen arrived in Australia to study English. To survive he drew sketch portraits of the tourists at Darling Harbour. Unlike his fellow street artists, he was determined to study portraiture for its own sake rather than just as a source of income. To this end he completed at least 5,000 life-size portrait sketches of people from all races and walks of life. He credits this experience with giving him the skills needed to be a professional portraitist.
Since 1992 Shen has regularly entered Australia's most prestigious art competition, the annual Archibald Prize for Portraiture. Notorious for its controversial choice of winner, this competition has seen the final accolade go to every style of portraiture from abstract to post-modern styles. Despite the relatively low profile of realist portraiture, Shen has been among the thirty-odd finalists thirteen times, including being runner-up. John Macdonald, a leading critic, remarked that his 1993 and 1994entries were "tremendously subtle… the play of light and shadow is skillfully orchestrated." Of his 1998 entry Macdonald wrote: "it is a brilliant likeness, capturing the subject's nuggety figure and his piercing blue-eyed gaze. It is Shen's best Archibald entry to date, showing an ability to blend academic painterly skills with a highly innovative approach to composition." When Shen was runner-up in 1997, Macdonald commented: "Shen is a whole-hearted painter who has come through a tough artistic training in China. He has all the technical ability, the courage to take on ambitious compositions and a hint of self-deprecating wit."
Mary MacKillop was a teacher and Catholic nun who established the Sisters of St Joseph in the 19th century, and is Australia's first saint. Her beatification was celebrated in 1995 with an art award sponsored by the Australian government and the church. Shen's entry Mary MacKillop of Australia (1994) won the $25,000 prize, and he was invited to meet the Pope the day after the award ceremony. Pope John Paul II talked with Shen and presented him with a commemorative medal on January 19, 1995. The last decade has seen Shen combining portraiture with history painting, including such works as Seven Self portraits (runner-up in the Archibald Prize of 1997), and Self-portrait: Suddenly back to 1900 (2000), which was selected for the exhibition "Federation: Art and Society 1901- 2001" at the National Art Gallery of Australia. His "new history" paintings combine apocalyptic metaphor with references to great paintings of the past. Two series of these works: Post-Millennium Testament and Century on Wheels were combined with works from the 1970s to form a powerful solo exhibition: Zai-jian Revolution in 2002. This attracted five reviews from Australia's top critics, and one of the works, The Third World (2002), was chosen by six leading critics as the best artwork of the year. It depicted 94 historically important Third World figures of the last fifty years. Another large history painting, At the Turn of Century (1998), containing more than 100 important historic and contemporary Australians is on permanent display in the Queen Victoria building in Sydney's centre.
Since 1991, Shen has also executed private portrait commissions in Australia and Hong Kong, but since 1998 no longer accepts these with any regularity as they take him away from what he feels is his life's most important task - that of history painting in its various forms. Now he undertakes at the most six to eight portrait commissions a year, which since 2003 have included Australian government commissions. These official portraits include the Hon Tom Hughes AO, QC (2003), and official portraits of Melbourne's then Lord Mayor John So (2003) and Lucy Turnbull, Lord Mayor of Sydney (2004).
On May 14, 2004, Shen and his wife and daughter watched, with millions of others, the broadcast of the royal wedding in Copenhagen of Tasmanian-born Mary Donaldson to Crown Prince Frederik. Little did Shen know that ten months later he would be commissioned to paint the star of this latter-day fairy tale: the Crown Princess herself. In February 2005, Shen received a phone call from the director of the National Portrait Gallery and was told he had been chosen to paint Princess Mary. There was a catch however: he would only have three hours with her. Fortunately, Shen's years of honing his technical skills made him equal to the task.
From that time until 2012, Shen completed official portraits for many public figures, including the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard (for Parliament House), the Governor of NSW and Chancellor of the University of Sydney, HE Marie Bashir (for that University). In 2008, he was privately commissioned to create an epic mural-size painting Mederka which depicted the history of Malaysia's independence, containing 261 individual portraits. It is now housed in the Capital of that country.
'Goodbye Revolution, a 52 minute long documentary on Shen's career made by film maker Esben Storm, was screened on Australian TV channel SBS in 2008. In 2010, Shen's retrospective Shen Jiawei: From Mao to Now 1961 - 2010 was held in the Hazlehurst Regional Art Gallery, NSW.
2011 was the 'Australia-China Cultural Year,' with an exhibition 'New Horizon' showing at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra for four months. The exhibition comprised works chosen from the collection of the National Art Museum of China, and included Shen's huge painting Red Star over China (1987). Since then, Shen has been working on a new epic mural-size work 'Brothers and Sisters, comprising up to 300 individual portraits from Chinese history. The first part of this work, an 8 metre long painting Revolution (2009-2012), was exhibited at the University of Sydney in December 2012.
Jiawei Shen lives and works with his family in Bundeena, a beautiful village located on the coast south of Sydney surrounded by the Royal National Park and the sea. Since 2002 a group oflocal artists, organized under the name the Art Trail, open their studios to the publiconthe first Sunday of every month. Shen and his artist wife are two of the first members of the Art Trail. Shen doesn't need to sell his works but he likes to keep touch with people viewing his paintings. He talks with them, listens to them, explains his work and receives ideas from them. For him this is another kind of solo exhibition.