Lot 1016
  • 1016

Yu Chengyao

3,500,000 - 4,500,000 HKD
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  • Yu Chengyao
  • Abundant Spring
  • signed, titled in Chinese and stamped with the artist's seal
  • ink and colour on paper


Christie's, Hong Kong, 29 May 2010, Lot 1009
Acquired directly from the above sale by the present important private Asian collector


Yin Shi Cai Qin Yu Chengyao, Hsiung-Shih Art Books Co. Ltd, Taipei, 1987, front cover and plate 4-52, pp. 136-137
The World of Yu Chengyao, Hsiung-Shih Art Books Co. Ltd., Taipei, 1987, p. 102
Masters of Chinese Painting: Yu Chengyao, Chinashow Publishing Company Ltd., Taipei, 1997, p. 25


The work is overall in very good condition except signs of undulation due to mounting on the top left and lower right hand corner.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

During the mid-20th century, Chinese ink painting was swept into a tide of innovation. The new era was marked by unprecedented convenience in transmitting information, as well as rapid change. In the face of a staunch tradition of painting that had stood unwavering for thousands of years, those who had a finger on the pulse of the times began to seek a path toward revolution, toward a way of preserving the traditional literati spirit while forging new ground. At this very moment, Yu Chengyao, far from being a student of the art academies, retired from the military, and at the mature age of 56, began his first attempts at painting. Yu’s art departed from a starting point that was scientific in its perspective, observing nature’s landscape with a scrupulous eye. In this way, his understanding of topography coupled with an extraordinary persistence allowed him to forge a new path. Yu Chengyao has become a revolutionary figure for the 20th century, innovating upon tradition, pressing beyond complete Westernization or strict adherence to tradition to imbue Eastern ink with new vitality.
After retiring from the military, Yu had a 30-some year period of creative flourishing. That period of creative output is generally classified into three stages: early structural ink paintings (1957-1967), sophisticated and coloured ink landscape paintings (1967-1975), and finally a return to rudimentary depictions with brilliant colour (1975-1988).  Of these, the middle, mature period is most often hailed by art critics as Yu’s artistic pinnacle. During that time, he was living in solitude at Mt. Yangming, spending all of his hours painting and providing amusement for himself. In contrast with his earlier period of pure black ink or his later period of loose and relaxed lines, this middle period is defined by heavy use of colour, complex structures, and a forceful and powerful vigour. Although the painting Abundant Spring (Lot 1016) is not dated, its comprehensive structure and composition, the meticulous ink lines and deep saturation of colour are indicative of the artist’s middle period. Few of the artist’s paintings have become available to the public, and even more rare are those of such large scale as, Abundant Spring at 1.75 square meters, its brilliance of colours in such immaculate condition. The viewer can easily discern the power of the artist’s virtuosity during this period. Yu bestows a strong vitality upon mountains through his iconic “disordered brush” (or luanbi) creating a robust and full composition, while also demonstrating both scientific and aesthetic thought, revolutionizing and including the essence of ancient Eastern landscape painting. This work is indeed a pioneer in leading literati landscape painting toward modern art.
This season, Sotheby’s is offering in its evening and day sales three of Yu’s paintings: Abundant Spring (Lot 1016)Blue Sky White Stones (Lot 5012), and Mountain Greenery (Lot 5011). All three were completed during the artist’s most mature period. The paintings draw the viewer in with the artist’s depiction of prodigious mountain rocks rendered with luanbi in large-scale, as well as upon a vertical scroll and a horizontal scroll, each showcasing the artist’s compositional ingenuity. 
"Painting must access the genuine to arrive at the true essence" 
Yu Chengyao
Yu’s works have as their foundation a scientific realist vision of the landscape. He captures the scenery with meticulous precision and then, through an aesthetic and spiritual lens, reconstitutes the natural landscape of his home. In 1920, the artist travelled abroad to study military strategy in Japan, then returned in 1923 to join the military. He participated in the Nationalists’ Northern Expedition, the Fujian Rebellion, the Japanese Resistance, and other historically important military campaigns, finally retiring in 1946. The thorough study of topography during his military experience would go on to be profoundly influential in his painting, directly forming the artist’s meticulous and realist style in his depictions of the mountain landscape. Although his military years did not allow him to settle down in any one place, they provided a remarkable opportunity for him to observe the topography of the land. His interrogation and record of the mountains and the streams would later be the foundation for his singular aesthetic style.
Yu’s depiction of the natural landscape surpasses that of the ancients, and lures the viewer into a face-to-face confrontation with the scenery. With his spiritual experience of traveling all throughout China as his guiding force, the artist plucks out the aesthetically rich elements to illustrate not simply a realist landscape, but a narrative of the “hills and valleys of the mind’s eye” and his longing for home.
A post-tradition tradition: Yu’s new “three distances”
Abundant Spring strictly follows neither the Eastern nor Western traditions. Instead, it is a masterpiece created by Yu’s modification of both traditions of composition into his own style. From the perspective of the Eastern tradition, the work contains elements of the “three distances”: higher distance, deeper distance, and horizontal distance. Yet Yu forsakes the misty clouds, and instead places the emphasis on expressiveness and composition, using the three distances as a foundation yet walking beyond them in a new direction. The trees in the painting can be separated into the closer, more realist trees rendered through detailed brushstrokes; the centre trees are spread across as a thick, dense block of colour; and the lighter, verdant shades of green stand in the far distance. The artist adopted a scientific approach by using natural changes in visual perception to illustrate various distances. He straightforwardly expressed his powerful spirit, bestowing the viewer with a clear and refreshing image, using the most primitive emotions to render the natural landscape, revolutionizing the traditional style of a light nothingness, of clouds and mist, giving viewers a landscape imbued with substance and passion.
Innovation upon Innovation, Yu’s Western Perspective
From the perspective of Western aesthetics, Abundant Spring appears to incorporate the technical elements of chiaroscuro as well as one-point perspective. Yet it is the artist’s internalization of modern art and subsequent modification that has produced these effects. The winding river in the painting separates the mountains into left and right. On the left side, the mountains are situated against the light, bringing the houses and trees into sharper relief. On the right, the light illuminates the glossy boulders trapped within the mountains, their texture rendered with ingenious variation. The artist uses the luanbi technique, leaving crevices of blank paper amid the dense and coloured brushstrokes to create an effect of dazzling light. Not only is the thick and tight pattern imbued with a sense of airiness, this dance of light and dark captures the marvellous sense of light that is situated between the real and the unreal. Like the sparse rays of light beneath the shade of a tree, the artist – again using a self-cultivated technique – is guiding the viewer to see the abstract essence of nature itself. The perspective is handled such that when the viewer glances at this work, the vanishing point is seemingly situated above the scene, as in the Western one-point perspective technique. Yet it is actually the case that in order to prevent the painting from appearing scattered with too many points of perspective, he has concealed many focal points within the painting. The feeling of depth within the towering peaks on the right as well as the centre come from the Chinese ink method of expanding space via “a winding, secluded path,” leading the viewer from a place of finite space toward a place of greater expansiveness. In this way, the artist revolutionized the techniques of “high distance” and “deep distance,” to arrive at his original idea.