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A Married Woman in the Mountains – Wang Yidong’s classic portrayal of a wedding celebration reemerges
After the 1980s, the Chinese cultural landscape was uniquely shaped by the Rustic Realism movement. Paintings such as Chen Danqing’s Tibetan Series, Luo Zhongli’s Father, and Ai Xuan’s Zoige County Tundra, among others, gradually established a uniquely Chinese language in the global art scene. The formation of this “rustic” paradigm represented an awareness and understanding among artists of the relationship between globalization and the provincial consciousness. And with respect to artistic language, the development of “rustic” paintings was regarded as a powerful exploration into the language itself. The work A Married Woman in the Mountains, (Lot 15) created in the 1990s by Wang Yidong, one of the leading pioneers of Chinese realist oil-painting, is undoubtedly one of the best interpretations of the East Asian rustic narrative.
After graduation Wang became a faculty member of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts No. 2 Oil-Painting Studio, and later a full-time artist at the Beijing Art Academy, his proficiency in Western oil-painting technique the result of intensive study. Wang’s longing for his childhood home in the Yimeng Mountains, however, is something that has always remained with him. His memories of home are “a time filled with warm colour tones.” Over the years, he has repeatedly depicted with brilliance and warmth village scenes containing the village man, the bride, traditional printed cloths, bright red jackets, among other rustic elements. These are considered, in fact, attempts to map out his own ‘road home’, not unlike those of Andrew Wyeth, who carried with him the burden of sorrow as he painted his hometown time and time again, which he described as being “the size of a postage stamp.” The thick, rich “Chinese red” and the deep, soil-saturated black used by Wang are so pure as to have completely shed their coarseness or vulgarity. In that sense, A Married Woman in the Mountains “is not entirely a realist painting. It contains some romanticism, as well as some idealism.” The visual composition of the piece is seemingly inflated, the wedding scene and the joined hands and positioning of the bride and groom are reminiscent of 15th century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait. The somewhat stiff subjects and the sophisticated treatment of the detailed creases in their clothing reveal Wang’s proficiency in classical Western painting technique. Yet, his strong sense of provincial consciousness led him to highlight and purify the Western classical form with forms and colours of Chinese folk painting, even including some Chinese ink, line, and shading techniques. We can clearly see the great contrast created by the red and black on the bride’s clothing is clearly seen, as well as the bright light illuminating the bride’s face. The feeling of space is greatly diminished; shadows are nearly non-existent; the flowers, goldfish, and paper decorations have truncated the depth of space, actively pursuing an abstract expressiveness within a representational framework. A very Chinese floral fabric, resembling ancient robes, hangs solemnly behind the bride. Taking the shape of a slowly rising cross, the fabric intensifies the scene’s formality and air of ceremony. Here, Wang skillfully uses his beloved “Chinese red,” filling the fabric draping behind the newlyweds with tender and beautiful peonies, representing jubilation and richness, as well as swimming goldfish, profoundly infusing the work not only with Chinese elements but also with good wishes to the couple.
Amidst the chaotic and diverse art trends of the 80s and 90s, the introverted, reserved Wang held steadfast to the school of realism, bestowing his works with a simple, tranquil appeal. In his painting Wedding Night, completed in 1994, for example, we see the same confused yet calm groom and shy bride positioned in front of hydrangeas, representing eternal unity. Yet the current lot A Married Woman in the Mountains elevates the two-person portrait up to an even higher level, whether in its rigour and richness of composition or in the scene’s dramatic tension A Married Woman in the Mountains is ambiguous in its presentation of its subjects’ emotional states, which is exactly Wang’s anticipation. He says, “Perhaps there’s a twinge of sadness buried within the scene’s joyousness, a shred of nostalgia within the tranquility, some degree of unease communicated by the fiery red colour, or perhaps some loneliness is being stifled by the brilliant sunlight... I long to use the simplest colours and the plainest language to precisely express these feelings and emotions.” There is an air of contemplation in the way the groom casts his eyes on his bride, while she, red veil in hand, seems to be drifting away, a hint of the reserve of the traditional Chinese woman in her demeanor. The relationship between the two is in a delicate state of limbo, the feeling of alienation breaking them free from the collective rural life and elevating them to the freedom of individualism today. While that A Married Woman in the Mountains serves as a classic example of Chinese rustic realism, it also remains a national allegory for the contemporary person. In the increasingly remote reality of the rural community, this imagined countryside becomes a sort of elegy to homesickness. The distance between the bride and groom becomes a gap leading towards Utopia, a symbol of the unavoidable and perpetual mourning of modern man. But upon closer examination, the viewer sees how the artist has successfully displayed the heart of traditional Chinese values and the love and mutual respect of the newlyweds upon the canvas – through the symmetrically positioned, harmonious newlyweds at the centre of the painting, the earnest husband holding his shy bride’s slender hand, looking at her with a reserved gaze, his other hand grasping an oil lamp, that itself suggests light and hope, their body language simple and understated. And the beautiful face of the bride, her eyes set resolutely far away, with her left hand holding a red veil, communicate the independence and self-sufficiency of the modern Chinese woman, whose moral integrity translates into a willingness to dedicate and devote her life to her husband and family. Whatever the future may hold, this seemingly ordinary man and wife have joined hands to begin an extraordinary life journey.
Wang’s mature realist expertise is evident in both the work’s composition and the portrayal of his subjects. Yet even beyond technique, embedded in the work are abstract life philosophies as well as profound Chinese cultural elements and national consciousness. Wang once said, “nothing is more terrifying than the feeling of a life wasted.” Tirelessly observing and learning Chinese folk painting language and aesthetic concepts, Wang has skillfully portrayed prosaic, unpretentious rural Chinese lives using stirring classical Western realist technique with his creations, adopting the quintessential features of both Chinese and Western culture and successfully creating his own distinct and unparalleled practice. Completed in 1996, A Married Woman in the Mountains is a work that embodies all of the exquisite elements of the artist’s style, solidly establishing his historical position in Chinese contemporary art history.
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