Xu Beihong, The Sleeping Venus
Realism and modernism are two directions that the development of modern art in China has taken. Realism as introduced by Xu Beihong represents the long history of classical art and civilization in Europe, combined with his devotion to building a system based on an academy of arts, which laid the foundations fir art education in China today. Xu Beihong is a figure who cannot be ignored in the modern art history of China and even Asia. In his Origin and Essence of Arts, Xu Beihong pointed out the depiction of the nude figure was at the root of western art and this also became his main goal when he was studying in Europe. The Sleeping Venus (Lot 1034), the highlight of the evening auction this season, is not only a rare painting by the artist when he was studying in France, but also his first theme work. Based on rigorous modelling skill, it displays the cultural content of western ancient mythology, refreshing the attitudes of Chinese art towards love and desire, as well as referring to the pulse of the era with its clash between civilization and barbarity. His efforts on such themes as Chinese history and legend are uncovered, symbolizing the start of his career as a master of the era.
Nude: Suggestive sensual expression
In The Sleeping Venus, a beautiful girl is lying in a verdant, green forest on a patch of green grass. Her full, healthy figure is radiant with youthful charm. Her body language is relaxed and open, uninhibitedly welcoming the first blush of womanhood. A wonderful dream is tantalizingly suggested. Sunlight shining on the girl’s body looks like a sacred halo emitted from within; following the movement of the light, we imagine she is about to turn over lazily and show her front. There is a vivacious spirit in the air. What you can see from the painting is not just a female nude. It shares with you the season, the time and temperature of the scene, even allowing you to breathe in time with her, heart palpitating, arousing admiration and impulses. Throughout the history of Chinese art, works appealing to refined tastes have always avoided the direct depiction of affection between a man and a woman. The Sleeping Venus was completed between 1920 and 1921. At that time, the artist was studying in Paris and it was not necessary for him to avoid creating works based on the nude form, which encouraged him to become devoted to changing the conservative habits of Chinese society when he returned, and reinvigorate the appreciation of the human form and the expression of love in Chinese art.
Mythology: exciting and restless dramatic tension
The Sleeping Venus is not just a nude painting. The girl in the painting is not ordinary. If you pay close attention, there are two looming shadows, which look like human beings but have pairs of horns, creeping up to the girl. They are orcs – satyrs – in ancient Greek mythology; a “satyr” is half man and half goat, also known as a “faun” in Roman mythology, and they like harassing nymphs in the forest. In Greek mythology, the leader of the gods, Zeus, once turned into a satyr and courted Antiope, the beautiful daughter of the river god of Boeotia, from which events various later successive mythological works of “Nymph and Satyr” are derived. If the nymph in the painting is alone, then she will be regarded as the Goddess of Hunting, Diana, or the Goddess of Love, Venus. If the nymph is heroic and valiant and the satyr is afraid, then generally it is Diana; if the nymph is delicate and innocent and the satyr is not afraid, then in most cases it is Venus. In The Sleeping Venus, Xu Beihong did an excellent job as director and storyteller by planting a terrifying lit fuse in the tranquil dark area of the painting. The satyrs feel like a time bomb which might explode at any moment, arousing tension in the work and supplying an integral plot to this painting of a nude.
Reclining: a classical pose popular for five hundred years
Xu Beihong is not only a giant of Chinese art but also an important participant of the New Culture Movement. At the beginning of his western journey, he was committed to immersive study of the essence of classical civilisation and art in Europe. Venus is reclining in this work. The pose originates from Dresden Venus from the beginning of the sixteenth century – a painting started by an Italian painter, Giorgione, and completed by Titian, the ancient master whom Xu Beihong admired most. In Dresden Venus, the nude girl’s reclining position with one arm raised directly triggered a revolution in figure art in the western world. For the following hundreds of years, from Velazquez, Goya, Ingres and Courbet to Manet (pioneer of impressionism), from which generations of famous artists continuously created. Xu Beihong created The Sleeping Venus, which demonstrated his belief in himself as a successor to the Classical European artists, and intended to promote it in the similarly profound Chinese art system; in 1933, when Xu Beihong passed through Britain on his solo exhibition tour, he copied Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus which was in the collection at the National Gallery in London. It can be seen that he never swerved from his faith.
Close-up: an innovative combination of continuity and change
With the reclining pose of the nymph in The Sleeping Venus, Xu Beihong shows his admiration for Titian while refraining from simple imitation. On the contrary, he imbues the work with a wholly different feel through use of a skilful viewpoint diversion; for generations, most artists adopted a one-point perspective when painting western reclining nudes, which created a balanced visual effect. However, this composition makes use of “foreshortening” which exaggerates the foreground, diverting your line of sight to the top of the nymph, thus creating a close-up effect; the compositional axes in the picture form a “close-middle-distant” diagonal from left bottom to top right, which enables audience’s gaze to move forward naturally from the face to legs of the nymph and then upwards, eventually to discover the satyrs in the distance. This special view angle first appeared in the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ in the fifteenth century. For this figure, Xu Beihong blended the wisdom of two classical Renaissance paintings into this work, while absorbing the colour and drawing techniques of Romanticism and Impressionism for the background. From this you can see that he reformed as he followed, finding change in continuity and creation in a fusion of art philosophy.
Symbolism: refined work with principles mirroring the era
In European mythology, the nymph is a symbol of beauty, sensuality, perfection and lust, while the satyr is a token of ugliness, evil, violence, greed and domination. Actually they are poles apart but always attracted to each other. Later, Xu Beihong called for “as refined as possible expression of profound principles” with respect to art, and believed that good work could express profound ideas with slight gestures. In view of this, the nymph and satyrs in The Sleeping Venus can also be regarded as symbols of civilization and barbarity. It seems that this civilization and barbarity is not purely a relationship between kindness and evil, but more a reflection of the state of the times in modern society – “the more civilized, the more violent it becomes”; it was the tenth day of May in 1919 when Xu Beihong went to France and it was less than one week from the May Fourth Movement in China. And the trigger of this historical event was the Paris Peace Conference which was held in Paris and intended to draw a conclusion to World War I. Considering Xu’s faith in “making a better world”, it was impossible that he was at the epicentre of this international maelstrom and felt nothing. By the turn of the century, Europe was one step ahead of the rest world in terms of modern civilization, and it was also a causal factor in the waging of the biggest war in the history of humanity; China considered itself a country of thousands of years of civilization, but was finally invaded by foreign powers due to its conservatism in modern times. This work plants unease in a beautifully moving picture, acting as a metaphor for the barbarian element underlying civilization.
Instruction: leading subjects such as history and legends of China
According to statistics of published works, The Sleeping Venus is the earliest painting created by Xu Beihong to have a complete theme. It was finished three years earlier than Slave and Lion, created in 1924. The theme of Slave and Lion comes from a fable recorded in Natural History written by the Roman scholar Gaius Plinius Secundus. The theme of The Sleeping Venus originates from ancient Greek mythology. Apparently, through his study of European classical art while in France, Xu Beihong actually touched on the whole of European classical civilization, which led to a focus on the exploration of such themes as history, mythology and legends after he came back to China and contributed to the first great collection of classical paintings in the history of Chinese art. The work was one of the masterpieces in the exhibition “China-Paris: Seven Chinese Painters Who Studied in France” held by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1988 and included in the exhibition catalogue of that year. When Xu Beihong taught in China Central Academy of Fine Arts, he gave The Sleeping Venus away to his colleague, teacher and artist Wang Shikuo; Wang Shikuo later gave it to his son-in-law, Daicho Taykeshi (original name: Ma Xiao), as a wedding present; then it was acquired by the current collector. Paintings by Xu Beihong are quite rare. Put Down Your Whip auctioned in Sotheby’s, Hong Kong in 2007 for the record-high value of HK$ 72,000,000. A painting as refined and rare as The Sleeping Venus is real treasure for collectors!
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