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Vie Française | Interviews

Inspiring women: Li Chevalier – the ink of the soul and spirit

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Franco-Chinese artist Li Chevalier gracefully restyles the ancient art of Indian ink (*) in original pieces which reflect her obsession with beautiful things.

Through the sensitive nature of her artwork, this former singing soldier of the Cultural Revolution reveals her philosophical and spiritual quest. Be inspired by the delicacy, the magic, and the poetry of her paintbrush!

Cliquez ici pour lire cet article en français.


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Born in Peking (Beijing), China at a time when the country faced famine, Li Chevalier was only seven years old when the Cultural Revolution began. The headteacher of her school was arrested and Li remembers being terrified during that time in her life.

Selected from her school by the hiring sergeant because of her ability to sing – it was in the army where the best education and the most prestigious jobs could be found – Li returned at the age of 15 with an army opera group.

The first three months were spent solely doing military training (learning to fire a gun, launching grenades and climbing). The children who had been taken into training were between 10 and 15 years old. Together they would all cry. As they were boarders, they didn’t return home for three years.

It seems to her that she’s spent her life searching for a beauty that was forbidden by the Cultural Revolution. “From childhood, I could only imagine a life of singing and the arts. This love of arts began at the age of 15 in an army truck whilst on route to join the operations troop for the Chinese Popular army. Yet I wasn’t allowed to feel beauty in singing or the arts! If my paintings crystallise some inner storms, then the eye of the storm is well and truly situated within this forbidden beauty, which has made my art an expressive means of support for my violent rebellions.”

Li Chevalier arrives in France

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - MidetPlus - Inspiring Women - Li Chevalier - Artist - PaintingIn 1980, she was demobilised and left the army. The university opened once again and Li Chevalier tried her luck at the University of Foreign Economic Relations, the only one which opened a door to opportunities in the West.

She spent three years there. It was whilst studying a course at the Ministry of Foreign Commerce in Beijing that she met the man who would become her husband; a young Frenchman linked to the French Embassy in China.

They married and Li had to, therefore, stop her studies (it was impossible to continue with them now she was married to a foreigner). She arrived in France in 1984.

As she didn’t speak a word of French, she learned the language on the benches of the Sciences Po University, then at the Sorbonne (the third semester was spent studying Political Philosophy).

A love of painting

Li Chevalier has always been passionate about painting, even if up until later on in her life she had been more of a musician than a painter. She followed her husband who was sent to Japan for two years and started her work painting.

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On returning to France from Tokyo, they settled at Le Château des Sources, Louveciennes, which was where prominent French painter Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun once lived. Li often walked along the paths painted by the impressionists, passing by the home of Renoir, and visiting The House of Artists in Louveciennes.

It was here where her artistic journey truly began and painting became a necessity. She spent almost two years in Italy on a study exchange program. Her first works of art were figurative, and then they became red and surrealist, very much influenced by Pierre Henry, a composer of electroacoustic music.

Indian ink 

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It was in 2003, during a stay in Qatar, that Li found her current style. She discovered Indian ink (*) and abandoned the use of oil. This discovery naturally swayed her towards works of abstraction, her style becoming less and less figurative:

“With ink, we paint on canvas and not on paper, and we paint backwards: we start with white moving towards the shades of grey. The work is more difficult because it’s not possible to modify.”

Today she is part of a group of artists who have decided to bring back experimental ink in contemporary work: “I hope to pass my paintings onto future generations in order to make the expression of Indian ink (*) known and to ensure that this timeless type of painting carries on.”

Every year Li paints 30 to 40 paintings, including three which are of a monumental size, which she sells as a priority to foundations and museums.

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - MidetPlus - Inspiring Women - Li Chevalier - Artist - Volonté de puissanceShe participates in four or five group exhibitions throughout the world (China, Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Sweden etc.), as well as organising a personal exposition approximately every two years.

Li doesn’t want to choose between two worlds and shares her time between two workshops in Paris and Beijing.

Always searching for beauty, disturbed by death and on a spiritual quest, in her art silhouettes walk towards the afterlife, a question mark on the horizon or perhaps a cross reflecting it, “torn between the Asian Zen and the Catholic restlessness where you must be burnt to give light…”

And you ask what her mantra is? “I bow before the spirit and I kneel down in front of the Good Lord.”

Li Chevalier exhibited her work in Venice during the annual film festival from 2 September to 2 October 2017 at the Hilton Molino Stucky Hotel.


Do you have a passion for art? Does it help you to express yourself? Tell us how the arts make you feel and allow you to express yourself in the comments below.


Inspiring women: collaborative partnership with MidetPlus.fr

[This article was originally written in French by Author: Marie-Hélène Cossé]

Here at MyFrenchLife™ we have pleasure in announcing our partnership with French site MidetPlus.fr to produce this new series: ‘Inspiring women’. This article first appeared on MidetPlus.fr and we have translated it into English for your added pleasure.

Mid&Plus takes a decidedly positive view of women in the world and produces wonderful portraits of inspiring women.

This collaboration enables you to read this series of inspiring life stories in French on Midetplus.fr and in English here on MyFrenchLife™ – MaVieFrançaise® magazine and we also encourage you to visit midetplus.fr for further inspiration.

We hope that you enjoy it.

Meet Marie-Hélène Cossé, founder of MidetPlus.fr


All images © Mid&Plus
Translated by Katie Wilkinson
* India(n) ink – the English language term coined as early as the mid 17th Century for ink sourced from China and sold via India to Europe and elsewhere – via Wikipedia – “The process of making India ink was known in China as early as the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, during Neolithic ChinaIndia ink was first invented in China, but the English term India(n) ink was coined due to the later trade with India.


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