Religion has played a critical role in the history of Western art. With patronage from the church and members of the aristocracy, the majority of artistic forms were created fundamentally in service of religion. Over 2,000 years, countless artists wielded their exquisite talents in interpreting the pages of the Bible, propagating the text’s divine teachings, and evoking a spirit of devotion among viewers. Among these works, the story of Adam and Eve has been one of the most frequently depicted. According to the book of Genesis, God created Adam and Eve in his own image, placing them in the heavenly and joyous Garden of Eden. When Eve succumbs to the serpent’s temptation, the two of them eat the forbidden fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and are cast out from the Garden of Eden, marking the beginning of all of man’s sin and suffering. From the early Renaissance painter Masaccio, to Baroque painter Rubens, to the Modern painter Gustav Klimt, artists across all of time have been drawn to this subject, whose intrigue and charm transcends the centuries. Chinese-American painter Yun Gee created at least two paintings of this subject, one of which is the lot on offer, Adam and Eve (Lot 1025). This distinctly Western story, in the virtuosic hands of an Asian artist, is rendered in a truly striking and singular manner. Completed between the 1940s and 50s, Adam and Eve has heretofore been in the possession of the artist’s family. This is its first public appearance. Here, we investigate the origins of Western religion as a theme in Yun Gee’s art.
Yun Gee, who had immigrated to the United States at a young age, retained the lessons of his Eastern teachings as a core foundation, and utilized those from his Western teachings in the implementation of his art. Records refer to his bookshelf as containing both Confucius’s Analects, as well as Sigmund Freud’s Introduction to Psychoanalysis and the Bible. Looking back on Chinese history, the earliest spread of Christianity to China dates back to the Tang dynasty. But compared to the local belief systems of Confucianism or Taoism, or Buddhism, which arrived from India, Christianity was mostly relegated to a marginalized position, even outright rejected. It was only in the 17th century during the Qing dynasty, with the influx of Christian missionaries to Asia, that the religion expanded in scope. This change marked the introduction of art and cultural ideas utterly different and often opposed to that of Chinese tradition. In the Chinese art world, very few painters took on the task of interpreting Western religion or philosophy; in this respect, Yun Gee is considered one of the modern pioneers. The artist’s wife, Helen Gee, recalls Yun Gee not as a devout Christian, and yet he returned to the subject of the Bible again and again, throughout his lifetime. The first of his paintings that contained religious connotations was the 1926 My Conception of Christ. Later, in 1932, the artist completed Wheels: Industrial New York, which, while not explicit in its religious subject, metaphorically invokes the twelve disciples of Jesus. In the next twenty years, Yun Gee would go on to create the works The Last Supper and Resurrection, testifying to the important role of religion in Yun Gee’s artistic career.
Innumerable masterpieces feature the Garden of Eden as a subject, yet the moment Yun Gee has chosen to portray seems to point to a deeper agenda, opening up the painting to expansive interpretation. Adam and Eve captures the moment right before the two have eaten the forbidden fruit. Eve looks up, dazed, at Satan in the form of a serpent upon the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit hangs tenuously from a branch, while Adam, standing behind, seems oblivious to the significance of that which is transpiring before him. It is the final scene of the pair in the Garden of Eden. In this moment, Adam and Eve, completely nude, have no comprehension of good or evil, of shame or guilt. The Garden’s defining characteristics – eternity and purity will vanish in the very next instant, transforming the scene into a world beyond recognition. The artist’s choice to capture this decisive moment, crystallizing it upon the canvas, is a decision that pulls at the work’s conceptual tension. By the 1940s and 50s, Yun Gee himself had endured the upheavals of the Great Depression and the World Wars. What had been a smooth rise to the top, his artistic career was battered and delayed by the harsh realities of an era. He was dejected, exhausted, and his spirit had taken a beating. For the artist, the hope of a square of soil that could accommodate his boundless creativity, into which he could pour himself into, was his only salvation. And thus, this painting depicts the moment before Adam and Eve are exposed to the sinister world, a scene frozen in days of idyllic freedom. In 1939, Yun Gee had already created a version of Adam and Eve using hyper-brilliant colors. Permeated by surrealist influences, the figures of Adam and Eve are distorted and warped, the painting’s relatively playful tone a far departure from his later more refined and mature style. This later painting, the lot on offer, inclines toward realism, displaying a fully realized, solemn style that is the culmination of decades of experimentation and artistic honing. In this way, the painting is a record of the artist’s journey alone to the West, his dynamic artistic path, and a passionate spirit that gazed always toward the Garden of Eden.
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