1024

Details & Cataloguing

Modern Art Evening Sale

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Hong Kong

Yun Gee
1906 - 1963
RIGHT ROUTE TO FREEDOM
executed in 1947
signed in Pinyin
oil on canvas
94 by 101.5 cm; 37 by 40 in. 
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Provenance

Collection of Zhou Nianci
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 7 April 2007, Lot 30
Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector 

Exhibited

New York, China Institute in America, Exhibition of Paintings by Yun Gee, 5 August - 15 September 1947
New York, Gudenzi Galleria, Oil Paintings by Yun Gee, 4 - 17 December 1962

Literature

Oil Paintings by Yun Gee, Gudenzi Galleria, New York, 1962 (exhibition brochure) 
Gu Yue ed., YUNGEE CHU, Hebei Educational Publishing House, Beijing, 2014, p.126-127

Catalogue Note

Geopolitical Preoccupations and the Opening Curtains of Modernism

In 1932, Yun Gee completed Tanaka Memorial (Lot 1023), drawing attention to the aggressive political ambition of Japanese militarism. The painting earned him a reputation as a prophet of the Second World War. In an unpublished manuscript “East and West Meet in Paris” from 1944, the artist wrote: “Every sincere artist must attempt to fully express the times in which they are living, depicting how people perceive the world, as well as the contents of their observation.” Yun Gee believed that art must be “of the world.” In other worlds, the artist must fully immerse himself in his surrounding social, political, and artistic circumstances, merging together various different perspectives. He must respond to and reflect upon contemporary social realities, translating it into a social consciousness. Fifteen years later, two years following the surrender of the Japanese military surrendered and the end World War II, the artist created the lot on offer, Right Route to Freedom (Lot 1024). At the time, societies were saddled with the work of reconstructing their civilizations out of the rubbles of war, the global political and economic maps being rewritten. From the eyes of this Chinese-American artist, the world was draped in a gauze of uncertainty. It was during this time of uncertainty that he completed Right Route to Freedom. It was Yun Gee’s vision for his country, and the world. 

In 1939, France and England declared war against Germany, formally announcing the beginning of World War II. Yun Gee was thus forced to leave Paris and return to New York. His days in Paris, however, left an indelible imprint upon Yun Gee’s artistic consciousness. Paris was a city that not only provided fresh and fertile soil for contemporary Western art, it was also home to a treasure trove of Western classical art and aesthetic tradition. In Right Route to Freedom, the artist travels back in time to revisit the Western classical themes, imbuing it with Western symbolism. In the center of the painting, a young man in Western garb rides upon a horse, his dress and appearance evoking the United States’ World War I “I Want You For U.S. Army” recruitment poster, Uncle Sam, by James Montgomery Flagg. It also invokes Jacques-Louis David’s classical painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  Yet unlike the depiction of Napoleon, who appears in a heroic and defiantly fearless posture, the young man in Yun Gee’s painting has his head turned cautiously, alert to danger, as though anticipating enemy forces from behind. He holds a sword in his left hand, his expression dignified and grave, his posture ready for battle. His right hand is on the reins of a horse, abruptly stopped at a fork in the mountains in a moment of decision. The differences between the two routes are illuminated by Yun Gee through symbols and imagery. The horse faces the mortal abyss in the lower left corner of the canvas, depicted as a dark and chaotic mass. Slipping from the skeleton lying across the bottom is a soldier’s helmet and sword. The skeleton has long been a symbol in mememto mori paintings, a reminder of the medieval Christian warning that “all men must face death.” The helmet represents war and violence, and the fallen sword signifies the defeat of justice and power. Across from the skeleton, a vulture flaps its wings, staring at the incoming man, anticipating its next meal. At the same time, an orchid is placed nearby, an intentional inclusion of Eastern imagery that conjures Zheng Sixiao’s classic Ink Orchard. The orchid is depicted with no roots or soil, indicating the fall of one’s country and the death of people, silently invoking the despairing, elegiac question: “Our land has been taken; have you not yet realized?” And in this critical moment, an angel appears behind the young man, pointing to the other road, “the way of light.” A Christian church representing truth and goodness sits at the end of the path, the sun half-risen above the distant mountains. Light is on the verge of spilling across the entire land. The horse’s front foot is suspended, ready to land, and the young man on the saddle, seemingly alert to the words of the angel, quickly halts the horse at the precipice of danger, and leads an awakened country and society toward the light.

The Languages of Diamondism and Modernism 

Combining the characteristics of Synchronism and Surrealism, which the artist had studied in San Francisco and Paris, respectively, in the 1930s, Yun Gee established an individual style called Diamondism. Diamondism united the realms of the physical, the psychological, and the rational. From the starting point of depicting the physical properties of his subjects, he communicated his rich observations about society and the social consciousness, finally embedding them with even deeper layers of philosophical and spiritual insight. In this way, his paintings contain a spectrum of deepening layers, each interlocked with the others. This theory is perfectly manifested in Right Route to Freedom. In color composition, the overarching color tones are heavy, and the scene is darkly lit and foreboding, the dim light flickering across the triangular patches of blue and green, creating a surreal, dream-like visual effect. This effect conveys a complicated, repressed emotional state. At the same time, using surrealist techniques, he invokes the use of symbols and imagery that create a mysterious world in which the lines of reality are blurred. One can also detect traces of Expressionism and the influences of Freudian dream interpretation. The dream realm depicted in Right Route to Freedom can be seen as a liberation of Yun Gee’s inner psychology. He fearlessly expresses his individual perspective on society and the world, providing caution and hope, boldly demonstrating his grand vision for the country and its people. This painting, imbued with spirituality and philosophy, is indeed an enduring masterpiece.

Multiple Identities, A Descendant of Modernism

Yun Gee spent his life as a drifter, influenced by myriad artistic schools and styles from both the East and West. His artistic journey included a “San Francisco Period,” a “Paris Period,” and a “New York Period,” and after uniting the characteristics of Synchronism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Futurism, the artist ultimately gave birth to Diamondism, his individual school of thought. In stylistic terms, it transcends the boundaries of Western artistic thinking regarding the definition of culture, and, using novel techniques, Yun Gee established a new idiosyncratic consciousness toward his own sense of culture, breaking free from the constraints of binary categorization, and creating an aesthetic perspective uniting East and West. In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue for “Experiences of Passage, The Paintings of Yun Gee and Li-lan,” Joyce Brodsky, professor emeritus at University of California, Santa Cruz, describes the painter as a “transnational in ‘in between’ spaces.” Living in America and observing the events of his times, while at the same time yearning for his motherland, the artist was Chinese, American, and a Modernist, all at once. Yun Gee’s understanding and definition of his ethnicity, culture, and art can be considered the center of his lifelong exploration and vision.

Modern Art Evening Sale

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Hong Kong