Guan Liang’s Beijing opera paintings are a sublimation of his portrayals of human figures. Spiritually, they reflect the artist’s ethos of adhering to good against evil. And artistically, they represent the artist’s accomplished union of oil painting and ink. The Chinese painter Zhu Qizhan once exclaimed, “In the pursuit of childlike innocence, Guan Liang and I are fellow enthusiasts. But in actual practice, I am inferior to him” (from Mok E-Den, The World of Powdered Wrists: The Art of Guan Liang). This “childlike quality” is a vital element of Guan Liang’s paintings, and is particularly apparent in his Beijing opera characters. Guan Liang’s Beijing opera series opened up a new chapter for traditional Chinese art as he boldly used the performers of the opera to create what was heretofore unseen in Chinese painting and calligraphy. With Guan Liang’s paintings, Beijing opera made the leap from folk art to the halls of fine art. The artist released the tradition of Chinese figurative painting from what had become the formulaic yoke of the “traditional 18-stroke” technique, and transformed it into something that was capable of perfectly manifesting a spirit of childlike innocence. The oil on canvas Monk Tang and Wukong (Lot 1038) is another union of opera characters with traditional Chinese painting, resulting in a rich scene of great liveliness. This piece demonstrates the xieyi spirit in Chinese landscape painting, but using the medium of oil. Its elegant and simple silvery tones reimagine the light-ink brushstrokes of traditional Chinese painting. Depth is created with the large tree placed in the foreground, and upon closer appreciation, this simple yet comprehensive composition seems to be invoking the iconic compositions of Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire series. For this, one cannot but marvel at Guan Liang’s ingenuity. The Monkey King and Monk Tang are playing in the foreground, the monkey half-crouched, his eyes glistening with intensity. Monk Tang on the right appears merciful and reserved. The intentionally clumsy forms appear almost as figures in the Dunhuang Cave murals, images that undoubtedly made an impression on the artist after his expedition to northwest China between 1941 to 1944. Monk Tang and Wukong is unsurprisingly one of Guan Liang’s most universally beloved works.
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