Guan Liang was an early devotee of Chinese opera. As a child, he accompanied his father to performances, making sketches of the actors on stage, and collecting cigarette cards that featured drawings of well-known characters. These were his first formative cultural experiences, and they awakened his aesthetic sensitivity. Guan Liang believed that Chinese opera was not merely to be passively received by the audience; rather, he experienced it as something more insistently direct and immersive. No other artist was better at capturing the scene of the stage so faithfully, particularly in the expression of the actors’ personalities and psychologies. This painstaking dedication and thoroughness is one of the most admirable qualities of Guan Liang’s art and his life.
Monkey King Making Havoc in Heaven: Magnificent Skill, Vivid Expressiveness
The wonder in Guan Liang’s ink-wash depictions of Chinese opera characters lies in his childlike and plain style, without any mannered or pretentious affectations. The simplicity and succinctness of the brushwork captures the spirit of the actors and the atmosphere of the stage, delighting and pleasing the viewer’s eye. At the same time, Guan Liang’s ink-wash techniques contain stylistic traces of traditional literati paintings, while his use of colour reveals a study of Western Fauvism.
The large-scale painting on offer, Monkey King Making Havoc in Heaven (Lot 1003), belongs to a series called “Journey to the West,” a series that is perhaps the most sensational depiction of the opera theme that Guan Liang pursued his entire life. This piece is considered to be incomparable in its demonstration of the artist’s skill, and novel composition. It is regarded as one of the peerless masterpieces available on the market. From the scene as a whole, down to the details, one can see Guan Liang’s care and cleverness in his striking and atmospheric recreation of the Beijing opera stage. The characters are arranged with intentional staging, such that they would be right in the audience’s line of vision. The composition, while not rigidly constrained by rules of perspective, appears to have multiple layers of depth. Despite the formidable size of this painting, Guan Liang proceeds with formidable confidence, his brushwork retaining agility, his lines natural and refined. Finally, with remarkably few brushstrokes, he creates the vivid appearance of the operatic characters, each of their movements or gestural flourishes emerging upon the paper. In addition to the black ink, the piece features exquisite shadings of colour, bright yet harmonious, exaggerated yet elegant. This bold use of colour is a testament to Guan Liang’s deep investigation into Western art.
The central character of the Monkey King fearlessly raises his Golden-Hooped Rod, his eyes murderous circles of rage, an aspect to which Guan Liang paid careful attention. Although the eyes in Monkey King Making Havoc in Heaven may appear deceptively simple to render, they require the utmost attention. Likewise, the eyes of the other characters in the scene present a range of stares, glances, peeks, and glares, all variety of expressions perfectly rendered. The myriad emotions and desires within their hearts, as well as their virtues and vices, are on full display. Each character is bestowed with an individual spirit, but the entire scene is not simply an assembly of different forms. Rather, it contains a sense of interaction and unity, much like characters on a stage. Viewing this painting is much like seeing the opera stage, an experience of unending delight.
Cowherd: A Literary Master’s Inscription, Brimming with Charm
“Cowherd” is a popular traditional Chinese opera, the story of the opera deriving from the last two lines of a poem, titled “Qingming” by Tang dynasty poet Du Mu. The plot is straightforward, featuring two innocent playmates, meeting on the road by chance, who casually begin singing and flirting. The artist’s interpretation of this subject is direct and clear, capturing the essence of the opera onto the paper. The painting emits an infectious aura of innocence and ease, reflecting the artist’s masterful and youthful heart. While Guan Liang’s brushstrokes appear childlike, they in fact are a manifestation of “the simplicity of brilliance,” the dull and clumsy brushwork concealing a conceptual maturity and sophistication. Understanding this, one can deeply appreciate Guan Liang’s ingenuous work.
The writer Guo Moruo held Guan Liang’s work in high esteem. He often wrote the accompanying calligraphic inscription for Guan Liang’s works, including the lot on offer, Cowherd (Lot 1004). Guo Moruo’s inscription is much like his person, sparkling with wit and humor. Having lived the romantic and unconventional life of a writer, Guo Moruo’s inscription is imbued with a light-hearted, teasing interpretation of the innocent and youthful scene in The Little Cowherd. His blunt words collide with the bucolic scene in a lively and entertaining manner. Guan Liang was known for using the same subjects for multiple works, and The Little Cowherd is no exception. Its large-scale proportions, however, combined with Guo Moruo’s inscription, indeed elevate it to one-of-a-kind status and value.
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