During the summer of 2018, an exhibition for Pang Jiun was held in Hong Kong, entitled The Journey of a Promise – Oil Paintings by Pang Jiun. It was the largest retrospective exhibition for the artist in recent history, opening at Landmark in Central, Hong Kong. The oil masterpiece A Thousand Sails on the Spring Tide (Lot 1033) was created expressly for the exhibition. The prodigious work fully showcases the artist in the prime of his life, an accomplishment of untrammeled creative ambition. Two other paintings featured in the exhibition, View from the Mandarin and The Footprints of Bai Juyi, have been inducted into the collection at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. This is a clear recognition of Pang Jiun’s talent and accomplishment. A Thousand Sails on the Spring Tide, the lot on offer at Sotheby’s Modern Art Sale, featured in a ceremonious unveiling at the retrospective exhibition, is also the largest-scale oil painting by the artist offered in auction history. Its sale price is anticipated to be the artist’s highest on record, marking yet another significant milestone in Pang Jiun’s artistic career of over sixty years.
Pang Jiun’s Philosophy of Grey
Pang Jiun’s idiosyncratic use of grey is one of the defining characteristics of his work. As the artist himself describes, this color tone “realizes the formal charm and ethereal quality of Chinese poetry, as well as the profound depths of reserved emotion in the Chinese people.” While the remarkable dimensions of A Thousand Sails on the Spring Tide, exceeding seven meters in length, produce a staggering visual sensation, the color tones imbue the work with a subtle, controlled elegance. For Pang Jiun, the color grey belongs to the realm of Chinese landscape scenes. Across Pang Jiun’s canvas, this delicately undulating color creates the curling smoke of mist and clouds of Chinese landscape paintings, culminating in the background, where the grey tones produce a particularly marvelous and ethereal effect. The small boats, the river, the high mountains, and the rolling clouds fade in and out of visibility in the misty greys of the canvas. The objects, disappearing and reappearing, are animated with motion, producing a masterful effect of focal distance. The heavy and light layers of grey not only convey a representational likeness to their subject matter, but render also the presence of the intangible, like the rippling of the water, the movement of air and the force of the wind, celebrating the vigorous vitality of nature. Unlike the pure and absolute qualities of black and white, Pang Jiun’s use of greys is fluid and multivalent.
The treatment of space in traditional Chinese painting inclines not toward realism, but the abstract, containing marvelous depths in its voids, and bringing to surface myriad overtones from within the constraints of the form. Beyond the explicit subject, images reside in the blank spaces of the Chinese canvas not visible to the eye, yet leading the viewer toward associations and to imagine the realms that may be contained within those blank spaces. Pang Jiun’s greys are a direct invocation of the liubai or “leave blank” concept in traditional Chinese aesthetics. Every color is contained within this non-color, this crisscrossing of the tangible and intangible generating an immense tension across the canvas. In A Thousand Sails on the Spring Tide, Pang Jiun uses a Western medium to recreate and reinterpret a Chinese practice and sensibility, bridging the chasm between these two worlds, the artist’s balanced and united regard for Eastern and Western art theory resulting in a consummate wielding of color.
During his studies, Pang Jiun feasted his eyes upon the works by the modern art masters, including Matisse and Picasso, an experience that supplied the artist with a bottomless well of creative inspiration. While under the tutelage of the art academy – despite the manifold restrictions upon artistic freedom due to the political climate – Pang Jiun’s experimental forms were already coming into being. He paid attention to the representational elements of the Post-Impressionists, and noticed how certain aspects chimed with the xieyi spirit of Chinese literati painting. He also discerned connections between the vibrant and coarse brushstrokes of the Fauvists and the unyielding, powerful lines in traditional Chinese painting. Pang Jiun’s bold and unrestrained brushstrokes naturally inclined toward the areas of intersection between Eastern and Western artistic characteristics. His brushstrokes contain both the confident and refined aura of Chinese calligraphy as well as the vigorous energy of Fauvism. In this way, his oil paintings unite Western representational forms and Eastern spirituality, breaking ground for a school of Eastern Expressionism, which claimed oil painting as something belonging to Eastern art as well.
A Thousand Sails on the Spring Tide uses as its subject one of the great beauties of the world – the Li River in China’s Guiling province. The perspective overlooks the river, the entire scene captured before the viewer’s eyes. Lustrous specks of red flowers and the verdant green of mountains form the foreground, punctuating the dominant grey tones that make up the Li River and generating tension across the canvas. Still as a mirror, the surface of the river is dotted with sailboats arriving from far away, making up the painting’s middle ground, a scene that seems to invoke the blessings of “fair winds and following seas.” The towering peaks in the background, shooting up into the clouds, appear in myriad forms in the veil of grey mist, creating a sense of visual depth. Although the painting is animated by a virtuosic freedom, there resides, nevertheless, a delicate order, an ingenuous arrangement containing both rhythm and stillness. The foreground, middle ground, and background are connected naturally upon the prodigious canvas, the gradual layering creating an immersive visual effect that draws the viewer into the scene of the painting itself. Pang Jiun’s work not only realistically depicts a marvelous scene of China’s landscape, he has materialized an Eastern literati atmosphere and artistic conception (yijing) in oil.
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