Synchromism: Leading the Way on the American West Coast
Although Yun Gee was only 21 when he completed the Self Portrait, the painting shows evidence of a mature and highly developed artistic style. It reveals the artist’s exceptional creative talents and ability to quickly assimilate modern European ideas, which he then transformed into his own creativity. Under Oldfield’s training, Yun Gee gained profound insights into Synchromism, which places a strong emphasis on the structure and rhythm of colors in expressing the theme of the artwork. The artist employed a Cubist approach in its composition, dividing the figure’s body and face into many small geometric shapes, most prominently as triangular planes. These small triangles, when used independently, could be elongated and morphed to suit the shape of the object. Together, they can also form other shapes such as rectangles, trapezoids and parallelograms, offering a great degree of flexibility which contributes to a solid composition. In Self-Portrait, the figure’s body below the neck is formed almost nearly only by small triangles, resulting in a robust appearance. The right cheekbone and left jaw are the most prominent features on the face, also made of triangular shapes. According to Yun Gee’s photographs from the same period, such exaggerated facial features are indeed based on reality whilst highlighting his personality and image.
The Synchromist movement also had a significant impact on Yun Gee’s color philosophy. At the California School of Fine Arts, Oldfield required his students to paint using pure oil pigment on paper, instead of mixing the pigments on the palette plate to create different shades. Because the oil paint is quickly absorbed into the material, such training equipped Yun Gee with an advanced ability to identify and apply different colors. Red and green are often featured as main colors of his works from his San Francisco period. Admittedly, such an approach is based on the “Color Wheel Theory” widely popular at the time, in which the two complementary colors of red and green sit at the opposite sides of the color wheel. The bright and vibrant color scheme of red and green heightens the contrast and provides a focus for the painting, such that even though his facial expression is calm and introspective, the emotional and visual expressions are still strong and vigorous. Such a color contrast is especially pronounced on the inverted triangular “light spots” on his face. For classical Western fine art painters, the control of light and shades on the figure’s cheekbones is often critical to its successful portrayal. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, for example, show the artist’s exemplary application of such light spots. As a contemporary artist, Yun Gee included more subjective elements in Self-Portrait, for example, by using the green color for the light spots. This unorthodox approach not only highlights the individualistic and unconventional nature of the character, but also represents the artist’s innovative spirit to break free from conventions. Amongst the artists active along the American West Coast, which remained primarily in the Academic and Impressionist domains, Yun Gee, a Chinese young man still in his 20s, was one of the few artists who boldly innovated whilst possessing a mature artistic style. ”Today Yun Gee is the best-known Chinese American artist active in the first half of the twentieth century, appreciated especially for the strikingly modernist paintings he made in San Francisco in the 1920s,” commented 20th century American Historian Tom Wolf.
A Chinese Self-Portrait Masterpiece
Through Self-Portrait, Yun Gee introduced an important subject into the domain of Chinese art pieces that draw inspirations from the West. Traditionally, Chinese painters often use flowers and objects as metaphors for themselves, following a long legacy since the ancient times. Self-portraits by painters were few and far between. Chen Hongshou (1599-1652) from the late Ming Dynasty and Ren Xiong (1823-1857) from the mid Qing Dynasty are two important figures who portrayed the artist’s own personality through the depiction of physical and facial features. Coincidentally, such an approach bears fascinating resemblance with their Western counterparts. Yun Gee painted Self-Portrait in 1927, around the same period as contemporary master painters such as Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso. Not only was Yun Gee the first contemporary Chinese artist to paint in the self-portrait category, but also, in terms of expressiveness and as an early display of artistic talents, the achievements could rival his contemporaries across the globe. Compared to the self-portraits by other celebrated Chinese artists such as Xu Beihong and Pan Yuliang, Yun Gee’s Self-Portrait has incorporated more contemporary concepts. Yun Gee was a pioneering American-Chinese artist, whilst Sanyu, a Chinese artist of a similar age, broke new grounds in France. Today, the latter’s strongly autobiographical potted flowers paintings set the benchmark of 20th century Chinese art market. As the studies of overseas Chinese artists continue to advance both in China and beyond, the historical significance Yun Gee’s paintings will increasingly be acknowledged, and their market values will also continue to surge. In time, Self-Portrait’s stature will also grow, both as an exemplary Chinese American masterpiece as well as an early American contemporary artwork of great significance.
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