During his travels far and wide around China, Guan Liang frequently performed en plein air sketches of his surrounding landscape, a subject he would return to throughout his entire career. Typically, Guan Liang’s landscape works, whether rendered in oil or ink-wash, depict a section of nature from a larger scene, including only the fore- and middle-ground in the painting. This is derived from the artist’s habit of sketching from a single position, sharing the visual perspective from his exact location. But in traveling towards the Liancheng Mountain range to Boacheng Shimen Cave, Guan Liang came across a vista that was a fitting subject to a temporarily altered approach to landscape, making this work the only piece in which he expanded the perspective, depicting a vast and sublime view of mountains and rivers.
The history of Baocheng stretches back 4,000 years, when, according to the presiding legend, Baocheng was granted status as “Bao State” during the Xia dynasty, its name enduring until today. With the Liancheng Mountains to the north, the terrain is strategically advantageous, and the earliest man-made elevated plank-way and tunnel in China were created here during the Warring States Period. By the Tang dynasty, a relay station for horses was built in Baocheng, regarded as “China’s greatest”. In Li Bai’s poem “The Difficulty of the Shu Road,” the summits mentioned in the verse “the Lian mountain peaks are but a step from the heavens” were in reference to the Liancheng Mountains. Shimen ruins had been discovered in Baocheng, but since the construction of the Shimen Water Reservoir in 1971, they are now underwater. Seventeen extant cliff inscriptions found here from the Eastern Han, Ming, and Qing dynasties have been relocated to the Hanzhong Museum.
Baocheng Shimen Cave (Lot 1006) can be regarded as Guan Liang’s sole oil painting depicting an entire larger landscape, as he presents the wondrous and imposing scenery of Baocheng. In the face of this majestic and mysterious landscape, Guan Liang departed from his compositional habits, and found a position on one side of the water where he could gaze upon the opposite bank in the distance, such that the topographically strategic features of the mountain would be in full view.
The vertical canvas conjures the format of traditional Chinese landscape paintings. With the distant mountain peaks towering in the center of the painting, the viewer’s eyes are drawn first to the upper half of the canvas, slowly following the smooth descent from the relay station to the plank-way, moving downwards, until they meet the rolling waters of the river entering from the center-right of the scene. To accentuate the height and majesty of the mountains, Guan Liang has intentionally left a sliver of a gap between the main peak and the top edge of the painting. In the farther distance, the mountain ranges obstruct the horizon, chiming with the poetic imagery of Li Bai’s poem and invoking the style of the Song dynasty landscape paintings of imposing mountains and waters.
At the same time, Guan Liang fully wields the advantages of the medium of oil, using bright and rich colors of tender green, indigo, and brilliant yellow as the dominant colors of the scene, generating an aura of openness and magnanimity. The application of oil color seems to mimic the cunfa or “wrinkling effect” used in Chinese landscape painting, adding a craggy texture to the lofty terrain.
Guan Liang was known for his mild and gentle nature, and for the serene placidity of his works. Yet in the face of this formidable landscape, the artist’s brush grew bold and majestically energetic, resulting in a painting that is a perfect ode to the natural scenery. Baocheng Shimen Cave first appeared in a catalogue of Guan Liang’s paintings published in November of 1957 by Chaohua Fine Arts Publishing House. Only a limited number of volumes were published, but an image of Baocheng Shimen Cave in the catalogue, showing the painting featured across an entire page, testifies to the creation of the painting no later than the 1950s. And at 79 x 58 cm, it was the largest-scale landscape oil painting by Guan Liang at that time. By the 1980s, Guan Liang had created another oil painting, titled Shimen Cave, at 135.5 x 134 cm, which was featured in a solo exhibition at the Shanghai Fine Arts Museum in 1984. Comparing the two, one can observe how the former painting, Baocheng Shimen Cave, provided the foundational elements and inspiration for the latter painting. In 2011, Shimen Cave was sold for RMB 23,000,000, the current highest price on record for the artist by a large margin. The collector had clearly discerned the importance of the Shimen Cave subject. The unveiling of the origin piece Baocheng Shimen Cave, then, at this season’s Evening Sale is certain to be yet another thrilling and significant occasion.
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