Lot 1014
  • 1014

GUAN LIANG | Legend of The White Snake

2,000,000 - 4,000,000 HKD
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  • Guan Liang
  • Legend of The White Snake
  • signed in Chinese and stamped with two artist's seals
  • ink and colour on paper
  • 95.5 by 178 cm; 37 ⅝ by 70 ⅛ in.


Collection of the artist's family
China Guardian Auctions, Beijing, 5 November 2005, Lot 2068
Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector


Shanghai, Shanghai Art Museum, Guan Liang's Solo Exhibition, May 1982


Cheng Nai-ming, ed., CANS Art News January 2006 No. 96, Chinese Art Books Co., Taipei, 2006, p. 61
CANS Art News Editing Team, ed., Guan Liang 1900 - 1986, Chinese Art Books Co., Taipei, 2012, p. 46-47
CANS Art News March 2012 No. 170, Chinese Art Books Co., Taipei, 2012, p. 108-109


The work is overall in very good condition.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Guan Liang was a great aficionado of Chinese opera. His paintings depicting the opera stage are a virtuosic display of the artist’s devotion and rigorous faithfulness. Each brushstroke derives from careful observation and consideration of actual stage performances. Compared with fellow artists Lin Fengmian and Ding Yanyong, who also depicted scenes from Chinese opera in their works, Guan Liang had an involvement with Chinese opera that went deeper. In fact, Guan Liang was never just a mere “spectator.” Not only did he attend performances, sitting in the audience with rapt attention, but he also established close relationships with masters of Chinese opera and theatre, and personally experimented with trying on the dress and makeup of opera characters. His was thoroughly obsessed by the artform. While creating his works, Guan Liang paid meticulous attention to every aspect of the performance from the expressions in each of the character’s eyes to their postures. As a result, the moment captured on the tableau is rich with vitality and vividness. At this season’s Evening Sale, we present two of Guan Liang’s works on paper depicting figures from Chinese opera, Legend of the White Snake (Lot 1014) and Cowherd (Lot 1015). Both striking works showcase of Guan Liang’s uncanny ability to convey both heaven and earth into his brush as he interpreted the drama of human life.  

Legend of the White Snake: A Tale of Love and Hate, Brushstrokes Laden with Emotion

Legend of the White Snake is one of the most enduring and popular Chinese folk legends. It has been widely referenced or adapted in literature, opera, as well as film and television. Guan Liang was captivated by an adaptation that was performed on the Beijing opera stage, and in Legend of the White Snake, the artist depicts the opera’s classic scene of the “Broken Bridge.” In this scene, Bai Suzhen has just lost the battle at Jinshan Temple, and is walking toward the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou’s West Lake. She experiences stomach pains from her pregnancy, and, while pausing to rest, chance encounters her husband Xu Xian, who has escaped the temple and fully repents his betrayal of his wife. Her companion Xiaoqing cannot abide Xu Xian’s lapse in loyalty, and draws her sword to kill him. But Bai Suzhen immediately intervenes, speaking of the enduring love between husband and wife, and stops Xiaoqing. This opera, rich with dramatic turns, exquisite emotion, and many layers of meaning, has been deemed a classic of Chinese opera. The lot on offer, at nearly 180 cm in width, is the largest of all of Guan Liang’s numerous works depicting the Legend of the White Snake. 

Guan Liang’s paintings of Chinese opera characters eschew depictions of grand narratives, but rather hone in on each character’s inner drama. In Legend of the White Snake, Xiaoqing is dressed in black, her posture valiant and heroic. With both hands gripping swords, she points one of the weapons directly toward a frightened and disoriented Xu Xian, who has fallen pitifully onto the ground. Bai Suzhen stands between the two characters to protect her husband. This is the climax of the emotional intensity and conflict in the opera. As Bai Suzhen exclaims while standing on the bridge, “See the broken bridge, the bridge is not broken, but it has broken one’s insides” (Broken Bridge, Legend of the White Snake), one senses the roiling mixture of love and hate in her words, her anger and mercy vying for dominance. All of this is captured vividly and thoroughly in Guan Liang’s painting. For a female opera character, in addition to singing and physical positioning and posture, the “flowing sleeves” are an essential part of the character’s expression. The sleeves can be nimbly manipulated, often used to convey emotion. Flipping the sleeves conveys grief or emotional excitement, flinging the sleeves represents anger and discontent, while creating waves with the sleeves can mean a variety of different emotions. In the painting, Bai Suzhen’s left arm is raised high, her sleeve flipped over, as though she’s throwing it off. Our protagonist’s grief, rage, pain, and conflict all pour out onto the painting in a single emotive gesture of her sleeve. Guan Liang captures this fleeting moment with exquisite vividness, an accomplishment that reveals both the artist’s deep familiarity with the opera, as well as his special affection for it.

The figures of the characters in the painting are intentionally portrayed with clumsy and childish lines. Yet this simplicity points to a deeper and profound complexity. The idiosyncrasies and personalities of the figures have been given over entirely to the facial expressions, in particular their eyes. As Guan Liang once said, “When the eyes have been refined and animated, and one has fully comprehended the character’s and the actor’s interiority, thoroughly grasped and internalized it, success will naturally follow.” Through masterful brushstrokes, each of the characters’ eyes—whether glaring, provocative, or downtrodden—reveal the subtle relationship among the three figures, as well as the humanity of the two non-human characters. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing, both snake deities, share an unbreakable bond of friendship. Bai Suzhen recognizes that Xu Xian’s love is fallible, and yet she chooses to trust him. This demonstrates a capacity for sincerity, kindness, and character that seems almost to surpass such qualities possessed by humans. Guan Liang’s concise and powerful brushstrokes boldly reveal these connections and bonds on paper, allowing the viewer to see the scene as an audience member. The artists guides the viewer by the narrative into rage, grief, tears, and laughter, the entirety of this marvellous story resounding in the soul.

In addition to the opera performers, the painting depicts the Broken Bridge and a willow tree in the foreground, with the Leifeng Pagoda on a distant mountaintop. These details show the care and attention that Guan Liang applied to the painting, contributing to the completeness and unity of this scene at the “Broken Bridge.” In Guan Liang’s oeuvre, there are no more than 10 works that depict opera characters in which the artist applied colour in the background. Taking into account also the grand size of the painting, and the refined and exquisite detail, this piece is undoubtedly one of a kind.