"I come from the East China. I am making a living in the West America. With an Eastern mind: peace, freedom, harmony, tranquility, joy, humility...I paint. Heaven, Earth, creativity grows. Time, life, inspiration flows. Look, feel I reflect. Subjectively, objectively. Form, formless, I myself, no-self...I paint.”
In the first half of the 20th century, Shanghai drew many of the young elites from all over China. As new concepts from Western art were finding their way into the country, they studied these ideas assiduously to understand the parallels whilst also preserving the differences. These efforts would eventually establish the basic framework of 20th century Chinese art scene and cement the prominence of the “Shanghai School” in modern art. Bold and innovative, many of these artists took inspiration from Western art and revolutionized traditional practices. Lin Fengmian and Liu Haisu were among these pioneering artists who travelled to France, whilst Guan Liang was the most renowned out of those who travelled to Japan. Bound for America, Chen Chi was a standout. All of these Chinese artists established themselves at the forefront of Western fine art, breaking new ground even as they retained their cultural roots, opening a window that belonged to a singular generation that would connect China to the Western world. The 10-metre wide watercolour work Flying Geese (Lot 1052) presented in the upcoming Sotheby’s spring sale is a representative masterpiece by Chen Chi. Its provenance is extraordinary; first in the collection of American real estate tycoon John W. Madden, Jr. in the U.S., then in the Museum of Outdoor Arts under Madden’s family until now. It was also exhibited by The Madden Museum of Art during the time. Its appearance in the upcoming sale is its first time in auction, bearing witness to Chen’s pioneering achievement of taking traditional Chinese painting and Eastern ink painting approaches into the domain of modern art.
Born in 1912 in Wuxi, Chen Chi studied traditional Chinese painting from a young age and began studying Western fine art when he moved to Shanghai in the 1920s. In 1940, his first solo watercolours exhibition was held, before he took up a teaching position in the school of architecture at St. John’s University. In 1947, Chen was invited by the World Student Relief organization to travel to the U.S. for a cultural exchange trip and embarked on his artistic journey. He enjoyed great success on the North American art scene, earning numerous accolades. In 1954, he was named an Associate National Academician by National Academy of Design, New York, before being selected as a National Academician in 1964. In 1955, he was awarded a special prize by the American Watercolor Society, then in 1956 served on the Board of Directors of the Society. In 1976, he was awarded the Society’s Bicentennial Gold Medal. His works were in the collections of major art museums – including, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Houston Museum of Fine Art, The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, The Portland Museum, The Phoenix Art Museum, and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Chen’s paintings were also keenly sought after by private collectors, notably former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, who once asked Chen for his work Old Metropolitan Opera House in order for it to be displayed in the U.S. Liaison Office in China. Other important collectors of Chen’s works include the Ford Motor Company, 4As advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Co., and Time Inc.
In 1972, Chen Chi returned to Wuxi, and the landscape instilled fresh energy into his artistic creations. Upon returning to U.S., Chen painted a large number of watercolours with deep feelings for his homeland in mind. Flying Geese was among the most representative. In the painting scroll, the tangible and the abstract are interwoven in amber and milky colours to form a vast river in which vortexes swirl and buffet. A golden sheen emerges, creating a magnificent view of boundless depth and breadth. In the picture, geese nimbly fly in groups of two and three, from far to near. Like a silver screen, the view unveils to express the most heartfelt longing of the artist’s homeland.
In 2000, Chen Chi was invited to participate in the first World Cultural Summit jointly organised by then-President of France Jacques Chirac and UNESCO. In the same year, he also held a retrospective at the Palace of Versailles and became the first living Chinese artist to have held at exhibition at the palace. For Chen Chi, it was not only a rare honour but also a symbolic moment for his commitment to the cultural exchange between East and West. Sotheby’s is honoured to present his outstanding work Flying Geese, and sincerely invites all collectors to pay tribute to the late artist’s great passion for nature and life as well as his profound artistic achievements.