This season, we are honoured to present Ding’s iconic colour and ink on paper The Eight Immortals (Lot 1005), alongside two of his oil paintings created around the same period -- Seated Lady (Lot 1014) and Flowers in a Urn / Composition II (double-sided) (Lot 1015), both of which contrast each other in a way that showcases the artist’s pioneering spirit of crossing freely between two artistic genres.
The Taoist legend of the Eight Immortals is a recurring theme in Ding’s oeuvre. The Eight Immortals were originally mortals who attained immortality through religious practice. Each represents a character of humanity -- the men; the women; the old; the young; the rich; the noble; the poor and the humble. According to Chinese myth, the Eight Immortals crossed rough seas together by using their own individual divine powers, instead of travelling by clouds - thus came the Chinese proverb: “The Eight Immortals crossed the sea, each revealing its own divine power”. The proverb is a lesson in how individual strengths and gifts can be used to tackle obstacles.
Besides theming his paintings around this myth, he has written at least two poems on this subject. In a poem he wrote in 1974, he described each of the legendary mortals vividly: “The weirdly magical Li Tieguai, the master of spells Lü Dongbin. Zhang Guolao who rode his donkey backwards, the ethereal beauty He Xiangu. The romantic Han Xiangzi with his flute, the handsome nobleman Cao Goujiu. Zhongli Quan the orthodox Taoist master, the childlike immortal Lan Caihe.”
From his written works to paintings, Ding depicts each character’s prominent features vividly in a precise way. Ding masterfully combines Western colours within traditional Chinese painting formats; his brushwork is deceptively simple but expressive, imbuing this work with the melodramatic colours of Fauvism.
Ding’s journey into the art world originated from his found interest in Western Modern Art. He studied Western paintings in Japan in his early years. It was only later, after returning to China, that he ventured into the world of ink, during a period when he began to study seal carvings, stone rubbings, and bronze vessel designs, subsequently building up the bridge between the East and West, and the Past and the Present. Ding’s ink paintings often reveal the spirit of modernism, showing the influence of his western learning which taught him to break free from conventions, as well as the idea of freestyle (xieyi) in traditional Chinese ink art.
In The Eight Immortals, the vertical composition spreads across the canvas from the bottom left to the upper right, creating a sense of space between the background and the foreground, which is rarely seen in Ding’s oeuvre. The fluidity of ink across the painting delivers a sense of rhythm and movement. The composition is thus brought to life and overflows with charm.
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