(ed.) Guo Morun, Guan Liang Huace, Sichuan Fine Art Publishing Limited, China, pl.28.
Guan Liang, 1900-1986, Lin & Keng Gallery, Taipei, 1996, p.63.
Guan Liang, 1900-1986, 100 Years Retrospective, Lin & Keng Gallery, Taipei, 2000, p.24.
Although oil painting was introduced to China from as early as the 17th century by foreign missionaries, and Chinese painters started to paint portraits with oils in the early Qing dynasty, it was not until the turn of the 20th century that oil painting would be accepted as an established form of art in China. It is due to two generations of artists who studied western art abroad and taught art in Chinese art schools after their graduation, that oil painting became an important and prominent part of Chinese art, and then gradually developed its own particular style.
Feng Gangbai was one the first Chinese artists to go abroad in order to study painting. He attended art schools in Mexico and the USA before returning to China to teach art in Guangzhou. As one of the first professional Chinese oil painters, Feng Gangbai introduced portrait and landscape oil paintings to Chinese audiences. Dusk (lot 551) depicting a sunset over the suburbs of Shanghai, was painted in the early years after Feng's return to China. On the reverse of the painting, the artist attached an inscription of three paragraphs detailing the subject matter of the work and explaining the techniques of how such landscapes were painted. It is likely that the work served as a pedagogical tool instructing his students in how to paint landscapes in this manner.
From the 1920s, several Chinese artists went abroad to attend foreign art schools, with France and Japan becoming the most popular destinations. As the country of origin of many art movements, the art academies of France were unquestionably the most appealing to most of these students, where they gained exposure to all of the major movements, from classicism to expressionism, from impressionism to expressionism. In France, Xu Beihong became a follower of French realism, while Lin Fengmian was fascinated by Fauvism.
Similarly, several decades after the Meiji Restoration, the art scene in Japan had become very diverse and as such appealed greatly to Chinese students of art. Many generations of Japanese artists studied abroad and returned to Japan, bringing with them different styles of Western paintings and thus making Japan an alternative place to study western art for Chinese students who were unable to travel to the Europe. Li Shutong for example studied in the oil painting department at Tokyo Art School, established by the well-known Japanese impressionist painter Kuroda Seiki. Li's famous Self-Portrait shows a great influence of Impressionism and Pointillism.
The Chinese artists that studied in these countries were inspired by different styles and schools, and would use their experiences of foreign training to reinterpret the tradition of Chinese painting. The selection of paintings by a number of these artists in this auction demonstrates the diversity and importance of these artists and signifies their efforts of creating an art that is both international and Chinese.
At the end of the 1920s, many returning artists from France became teachers at the newly established National Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou who would lay the foundations for what would become its highly-prestigious program of modernist art. Fang Ganmin, Li Chaoshi and Wu Dayu were among this early group.
Having studied at École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-arts in 1922, Wu Dayu returned to China and became the first chairman of the Department of Western Painting at the Hangzhou Academy. Deeply influenced by Fauvism and Cubism during his study in Europe, Wu was praised as a "master of colours" for his use of bold and unconventional colour in his painting. The distortions and abstractions in his art were eye-opening to many Chinese art students at the time. Abstract paintings were the representative work of his mature style. A Cat On The Balcony (lot 511) is such an example. The bold and wild brushworks are both reminiscent of Fauvist works, but also bear resemblance to cursive script of Chinese calligraphy. Dark blue, black and yellow were Wu Dayu's favourite colours, which compliment the composition while adding the effects of shadow and light. The contours of little cat is accurately rendered by several simple brushstrokes.
Another alumnus from École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-arts, Fang Ganmin also joined the faculty of western painting at the Hangzhou Academy. The style that more attractive to Fang in the 1920s and 1930s was Cubism. In his works, traditional three-dimensional figures were reduced to geometrical forms with dark outlines and harsh highlights to accentuate two-dimensionality and multi-perspective. Although his later work would become more realistic, traces of Cubism still remained. In Tree (lot 549) for example, he uses typically flat Cubist colours, and although single-view point-perspective is applied, the rendition of the tree, houses and land in the foreground is geometrical.
By the end of 1920s, increasingly more art students were returning from Japan to China and were recruited by the various art schools in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou. The painting style they returned with was not only heavily influenced by western modernist art such as Impressionism and Post-impressionism, but also by the Japanese tradition of Nihonga. Wei Tianlin's West Mountain (lot 544) is an example of such work. In this painting, the Impressionist-inspired swift, quick and short brushworks succeed in capturing the ever-changing effect of light. The volume and special relationship of the mountains and landscape are arranged by the use of blue, orange, yellow and magenta. In the meantime, a subtle sense of nostalgia and lyricism is conveyed by the emphasis on light blue and cyan in both the back and foregrounds. The majority of Wei Tianlin's works are flower paintings dating to after the 1940s; as such this landscape from the 1930s is especially rare, particularly because it accurately reflects the style Wei brought back from Japan. Lots 545 and 546 are good examples of his flower paintings, in which he combines bold Expressionistic brushstrokes with subtle Impressionistic colours with Oriental sensibility.
Ni Yide and Guan Liang were further artists that trained in Japan and who played important roles in modern Chinese art. Ni Yide was one of the founders of the Storm Society, the first Modernist art group in China. Only few of Ni Yide's work survive from this tumultuous time in Chinese history, but his extant works prominently display his particular styles of Fauvism. Shikumen (lot 550) for example, portrays the façade of the typical Shanghai architectural style of residential building cropped as a close-up. Quintessential Fauvist use of bright yellow and red and bold outlines add a great sense of joy and delight to his portrayal of this simple architectural style.
Guan Liang on the other hand, who also studied in Japan, found great interest not only in Fauvism, but also in Impressionism. The synergy of the two movements in his landscape paintings is a highly significant feature of his art. Museum in Berlin (lot 542) was painted in 1957, a relatively open and calm period in early years of the People's Republic of China. It was in this year that Guan Liang visited East Germany as a member of a delegation led by the Chinese Ministry of Culture and held an exhibition in Berlin. The mesmerizing landscape of this work exemplifies the artist's ability to capture the changing shades of light by using quick and spontaneous brushworks. Another work by Guan Liang, Blocking The Sea With Rocks At Zhanjiang (lot 543) shows a stronger flavour of Fauvism¿large patches of flat colour and use of bold and dark outlines. Landscape painting is rare among Guan Liang's existing works; most of his paintings are of Peking Opera figures. Nonetheless, these two works from the auction provide a window through which Guan Liang's early modernist style is clearly evident.
Paintings from this period signify the fledgling years of the endeavour by Chinese artists to establish a Chinese art that incorporated not only advanced western techniques and notions, but also retained indigenous Chinese characteristics. Although these two generations of artists produced a huge quantity of work throughout the 1930s and 1940s, very little survives from this tumultuous time in both Chinese and world history. Many works of art were lost throughout the 20th century, and as such only few works from this period remain intact. The combination of the rarity and historical significance of the paintings in this auction therefore highlight their importance in the history of modern Chinese art.
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