The Modernist era is defined by a collective feeling of resentment and displeasure toward the restrictive and outmoded rules of tradition, and a global output of revolutionary ideas and individual talent. The earliest Chinese modernist pioneers, such as Yun Gee, were expatriated to the United States beginning in the mid-19th century during the “Self-Strengthening Movement” of the Qing dynasty. Occurring at the same time, Japan, during the Meiji Restoration, established a modern art curriculum, providing training for artistic pioneers like Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, who later travelled around the world and made a life in places far from his homeland. Following the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan was used as a model for China’s Hundred Days Reform. Chinese artists Ding Yanyong and Guan Liang both studied in Japan, opening the door to Japanese artistic influence. Following the 1911 Revolution, China adopted a more comprehensive and active attitude toward the study of Western art and culture, and by the 1920s, the “Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement” provided the opportunity for masters like Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu, Sanyu, and Pan Yuliang to go abroad and study in France.
The trajectory of Modernism in Europe—the continent for which the Eastern artists yearned, and the birthplace of Modernism—in fact, followed a similar path. Impressionism was born in the latter part of the 19th century under the leadership of anti-establishment artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir. By the beginning of the 20th century, modern art was in full bloom. The world’s top artists convened in Paris, and by the 1920s, the School of Paris was established, giving a name to the exciting occasion of the gathering of such prodigious and plentiful talent in one city. Many of the East Asian artists mentioned above were also present at this historic convening in the City of Lights. The movement of modern art, then, could only have been built together by Eastern and Western artistic masters.
Following the Allied victory against the Japanese in 1945, Wu Guanzhong earned a spot in the first generation of publicly-funded study abroad programs. Zao Wou-Ki, Lalan, Chu Teh-Chun followed in his footsteps to the West shortly after, and along with local counterparts Hans Hartung and Georges Mathieu, these artists dove into lyrical abstractionism, bringing elements of Chinese calligraphy and Taoism into action painting. At the same time, artists like Bernard Buffet represented the oppositional movement, which they called “L’Homme-Témoin.” In the 1960s, artists Hsiao Chin, Li Yuan-chia, and Ho Kan launched the Punto Art Movement in Milan, introducing the Zen concept of “the spirit of contemplation”. Italian master Enrico Castellani became a member of both the Punto Art Movement and ZERO, the development and membership of the two movements closely linked. In England, Richard Lin invoked elements of the I Ching in his practice of geometric abstract art; At the same time, Liu Kuo-sung’s Modern Ink Movement was launched by the “Fifth Moon Group,” founded by the artist in Taipei, reaching full maturity while the artist was traveling in the United States and Europe.
This spring, the Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening and Day sales present classic works by the Asian modern post-war masters, as well as select pieces by Western impressionist and modernist masters. Also featured are precious Asian and European art pieces from the Bacci family in Milan and the famed Bolognese tailor Guido Bosi, and significant works by Bernard Aubertin, a major participant of the ZERO movement,. This season’s feature, titled “Modern Rangers,” marks the establishment of an Asian modern art perspective and historic position. “Modern Rangers” is recognition of these modern artists’ independence and spiritual freedom. In an era of tremendous change and upheaval, these artists crossed the boundaries of convention and nationality, arriving at last onto their individual paths.
Sotheby’s Modern Art Department
Following the reigns of the emperors Tongzhi and Guangxu during the Qing dynasty, China opened its doors to the rest of the world. As a result, Chinese art chanced upon an historic opportunity to join the rise of the Modern art movement. The coastal regions in particular served as axes of collision and interaction between Eastern and Western culture, the route from Beijing to Tianjin, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangdong, Taiwan and Hong Kong woven like a golden thread through Chinese modern art. Even before then, Guangdong and its surrounding region retained an atmosphere of liberality, unwavering despite the rest of the country’s isolation from the world, serving as the sole international commercial port during the reigns of Qing-dynasty emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong. In Guangdong, there existed an atmosphere of exploration and travel. The accomplishments of the Cantonese as a group are particularly noteworthy. Of course, any list of the most influential artists in Chinese art domestically, as well as the most accomplished, must include the French-trained Lin Fengmian, the Japanese-trained Ding Yanyong, and Guan Liang. These three modern artists have been hailed the “Three Masters of Guangdong.”
Proficient in both oil and ink-wash painting, this trio of artists was closely linked with all of the major art institutions in the country. Through their efforts, the seeds of modernism were spread across the country during the blustery and tumultuous climate of the 20th century. For their contributions to the development of Chinese modern art and the revolution of traditional ink-wash painting, these three artists can only be regarded as monumental, seminal figures. This season’s Evening Sale marks the rare occasion in which masterpieces by all three of these great artists will be presented. Collectors will have the opportunity to appreciate the threads of stylistic similarity and divergence among their works.
This season’s offerings of Guan Liang’s works will be a continuation of last Autumn season’s legendary success. Of equally reputable provenance, this season features twenty-eight of Guan Liang’s works, including oil paintings, ink-wash paintings, watercolors, and sketches, with subjects ranging from still-lifes to landscapes, human figures, and Chinese opera. Shuttling between the works by both Eastern and Western masters during the Day and Evening Sales, Guan Liang is a mighty bridge uniting the two worlds.
Still lifes are a classic subject in Western art, intended to express the beauty existing between an inanimate object and its space, while also showcasing the artist’s tastes and interests, not dissimilar from the qinggongtu or bogutu in traditional Chinese painting. The earliest surviving oil painting by Guan Liang is Qinggong, completed in 1927. One can discern influences of the Japanese School in the artist’s use of color, light, and composition, all inclining toward realism. By the time the artist created Still Life (Lot 1001), however, his style had matured, with more elements of individual subjectivity. His use of color is bold yet measured, natural yet full of imagination. The colors of the fruits and flowers are rich and saturated, bright yet refined. The entire scene is composed of simple lines that create vividness and texture, fully embodying the philosophy of “using brushstrokes sparingly to convey rich meaning.” On the right side sits a porcelain vase, its placement seemingly casual, yet creating a marvelous “painting within a painting” effect. With only a few brushstrokes, the artist has conveyed a scene rich with interest and delight. It is readily apparent that by this time in his career, Guan Liang was no longer bound to the constraints of realism. Although depicting a still life, the painting is not merely a reproduction, but a scene suffused with imagination. It is a testament to Guan Liang’s discovery of the xieyi spirit within the context of Chinese oil painting.
Soon after Still Life came Composition (Lot 1002), even more striking for its singularity. On the right side of the canvas is the side view of a Buddha head statue, generating spatial and symbolic contrast with the raw fish and meats on the left side. The image is fantastical and mesmerizing, conjuring the classic still-lifes of Italian surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. Completed in 1948, it is the only oil painting of Guan Liang’s invoking elements of Buddhism, perhaps tied to Guan Liang’s travels to northwest China in 1942 for artistic observation and inspiration. During his two years of travel, the artist visited the Central Plain, Emei Mountain, and Leshan, then travelled along the Jialing River to Guangyuan, heading north through Jianmenguan. Finally, he returned to Luoyang, where he visited and was inspired by the ancient treasures. These visits awakened a passionate interest in ancient Buddhist art, leading the artist to a series of Buddhist artworks, the earliest records of this intensive study including the gouache Thousand Buddhas in Guangyuan and his color-ink and oil paintings of the Chongqing Dazu Rock Carvings. In contrast to Still Life, the placing of the Buddha head statue in Composition is not merely a presentation of the object’s aesthetic beauty, but rather emphasizes the contrast in symbolic meaning among the painting’s collection of inanimate objects.
Examining its composition, one can see Guan Liang’s intentional creation of a two-dimensional space, his application of color creating large surface areas of geometric shapes. The scene is broken up horizontally, invoking a Cubist arrangement. At the same time, he eschews objective portrayals of light, space, and substance, flattening the piece of red meat upon the canvas as a rectangle, blurring the lines of reality and captivating the viewer’s interest. In this way, he stretches the distance between art and reality, enhancing the charm and power of the image. Additionally, the curtain on the left is embellished with natural, easy lines, conjuring the style of the Fauvists, as well as the xieyi spirit of traditional Chinese painting. The image of the Buddha head statue evokes a sense of peace and tranquility, and the fish, a homonym in Chinese for “bounty,” symbolizes wealth and good harvest. Guan Liang’s message of blessings and well-wishes are clearly conveyed. Surveying the entire catalogue of Guan Liang’s major publications and auction records, there appears to be only one such work with Buddhist elements and such ingenuous composition. It is a one-of-a-kind gem.
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