Works by four of the leading masters of the modern Chinese painting tradition will be offered in this sale. Born at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century, their lives faced the fast-changing world of the early 20th century. A time of unprecedented social and political change, all four artists’ work and individual style reflects their way of linking the old with the new, merging traditional Chinese ink painting with new elements and techniques and thus reinvigorating traditional Chinese ink painting and establishing it firmly in the 20th century.
Contemporary Chinese artist Li Keran can be ranked among the most important 20th century Chinese artists. In his work he combines his training in traditional Chinese ink painting and Western oil painting resulting in highly sophisticated and nuanced compositions.
While trained in traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink painting, he also followed the appeal of reformer Kang Youwei to merge Eastern and Western art and to create a new century in Chinese painting, studying Western art under Lin Fengmian and Andre Claudot at the National Academy of Arts in Hangzhou. With the support and encouragement of his mentors Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong, Li Keran developed his own style, a process he described as to ‘delve into tradition with the utmost dedication and then break away from it with the utmost courage’.
Li Keran’s landscape paintings such as the Huangshan Scenery offered here may have been inspired by one of his multiple journeys across southern China in the 1950s. His style of landscape painting, which combines traditional Chinese calligraphic traditions with Western painting elements often integrating a distinct, shadowed chiaroscuro, remain highly influential for Chinese landscape painting even today.
Huang Binhong’s work was, even in the 1940s, respected but little understood. As a painter rooted in traditional Chinese ink painting, Huang was also open to the Western perception of Chinese art and culture which he incorporated in his art theories. In his Principles of Painting (Huafa yaozhi), written in 1934, Huang advocates the study of Tang and Song painting ‘to trace the past to initiate the future’.
In his later years, Huang Binhong turned to paintings of flowers. The present painting is dated 1949 when Huang Binhong was eighty-five years old, a year after he moved from Beijing to Hangzhou to take up a position at the Hangzhou Academy of Art. The painting is executed in bold, abstract brushwork with seemingly little attention or regard to naturalistic representation but illustrating some of the ways of using the brush and ink he described at length in his Principles of Painting.
With a firm foundation in traditional Chinese painting techniques, Lin Fengmian moved to France early on is his life where he studied European painting at the Dijon Art College and enjoyed early success when his paintings were exhibited at the prestigious Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1922 and 1923.
Back in China, Lin Fengmian’s style continued to evolve. He strove to achieve a new synthesis of Eastern and Western art using rich colours and bold, rapid brushstrokes. This painting which he painted in 1963 in Shanghai, reflects his style. A boat with a fisherman and five cormorants is set against a monochromatic background of ink wash-and-line drawing in subtle tones of blue and grey evoking the emotive qualities of European paintings and thus creating a painting firmly rooted in the Lin Fengmian style. He was a pivotal figure in shaping the development of Western art training in China and was a teacher to some of the most renowned painters of the 20th century China, among them Li Keran.
Zhang Daqian is considered one of the most famous and prolific Chinese artists of the twentieth century, known for the many different painting styles he mastered over his long career. His early works made before he left China in 1949 show the influence of ancient masters as Zhang spent his formative years in Shanghai receiving traditional painting instructions from two famous calligraphers and painters of the time, Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing. As part of his training, he studied and copied works by ancient masters in detail excelling in all types of paintings in the ancient style, especially landscapes, and enjoying great success. In the 1920s, Zhang Daqian moved north to Beijing where he quickly integrated himself in the cultural circles of Beijing where a generation of traditional literati-painters mingled with a younger generation of idealistic men and women familiar with both Eastern and Western art and culture.
Among the artists Zhang met and befriended in Beijing in the 1920s and 1930s are well known figures such as Wu Hufan, Pu Xinyu and Huang Binhong, whose upbringing and backgrounds were similar and whose interests in traditional Chinese arts and culture mirrored those of Zhang Daqian. Some of these artists and calligraphers closely collaborated with Zhang Daqian during this phase and the annotations on the present painting demonstrate the close bonds and deep appreciation of this close-knit circle.