During a regime change in 1949, Ding Yanyong left the mainland for Hong Kong, where he stayed for nearly thirty years. In Hong Kong, Ding Yanyong was invited to teach in the Art Department at the New Asia College (now the Chinese University of Hong Kong), where he is still referred to as “Ding gong,” or the “Honorable Ding.” During his time in Hong Kong, Ding Yanyong threw himself into artistic education and study, ceaselessly pursuing new methods of artistic expression, finally arriving in the prime of his life at a wholly individual style, which grew out of the artist’s multi-media mastery in oil painting, calligraphy, and seal carvings, which he considered “three veins in the same system.”
The artist embraced this trio of artistic methods, borrowing techniques and conventions from one for another, finally uniting them in what became his singular style. Seated Lady (Lot 1014), completed in the 1970s, not only features the unusual combination of portrait with still life painting, but also, showcases the artist’s expertise in ancient Chinese artistic practices, including seal carving from the Qin and Han dynasties, as well as the Oracle Bone script of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. These divergent elements enrich the composition in a virtuosic display of various artistic veins upon the same canvas. This is undoubtedly one of Ding Yanyong’s most spectacular remaining oil paintings.
The Rich Expressiveness of a Classic Beauty
Portraits were one of Ding Yanyong’s lifelong subjects, in particular those of women. Ding Yanyong had already attained artistic maturity by the time he created Seated Lady, the Fauvist elements no longer superficially displayed but internalized and embedded within his work. The model’s face is composed of a few simple lines, sketching out a distinctive personality. Her mandarin-tinted skin and ink-black hair emit an aura of East Asian femininity. With her arms at her sides, the model sits erect in her chair, her comportment dignified. She looks straight out of the frame with a calm and graceful bearing, the vase of flowers only enhancing the painting’s expression of charm and elegance. From the model’s skin tone to her clothing, the surrounding objects, and the background, the artist combines many bright colours into the same frame, using both warm and cool tones to create a sense of heightened visual contrast, animating the visual dynamism of the painting. This bold artistic decision departs from the conventional aura of solemnity and silence of portrait or still life paintings.
Ancient Charm and Modern Execution
By the 1960s, Ding Yanyong’s female portraits favoured spirit over form, simplicity over detail, and Seated Lady is no exception. But beyond the depiction of the model, one sees evidence of Ding Yanyong’s finer artistic intentions. Ding Yanyong possessed a profound understanding of millennia of ancient Chinese art tradition, seeking inspiration from ancient mental and bronze inscriptions and seal carvings, and then inserting them into a Western medium. The artist hides these clues within the painting for the initiated viewer to discern and decode. For example, the bird-like image on the woman’s shirt seems to invoke the decorative animal motifs stamped onto ancient bronze implements. By surveying Ding Yanyong’s seal carvings, one can recognize this motif from the artist’s personal “Seal of the Swan Goose,” often included in his carvings. The earthenware vase features the image of the ancient horse-drawn carriage commonly featured in Qin and Hang dynasty implements, an image also annotated in Zao Wou-Ki’s academic text Han Tuo. The artist’s signature in the lower right-hand corner possesses characteristics of Oracle Bone Script and hieroglyphics, enhancing the painting’s cultural depth and aura of bronze inscription, while also invoking the tradition of inscriptions in Chinese calligraphy. This combination of myriad disparate elements come together in a way that is perfectly unified, and represents the painting’s singular charm.
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