Cowherd (Lot 1015) is based on the Beijing Opera Cowherd. Unlike the complex plot and violent conflicts in Legend of the White Snake, the opera Cowherd was inspired by a simple image from Du Mu's poem "Qing Ming." The line reads: "Where may I find a wine shop? The shepherd boy points toward Almond Blossom Village." It is a bright, joyful, and carefree opera. Guan Liang takes this delightfully contented atmosphere of the opera and extends it directly into his painting. The young shepherd in the painting herds his cows and plays his pipe. When a village maiden asks him for directions, the two walk along the mountain path and sing with great enjoyment, creating a bucolic and pastoral tableau.
In this work, Guan Liang intentionally relaxes the dramatic tension, focusing instead on capturing the characters' movement and the messages expressed by their eyes. With only a few masterful brushstrokes, the artist has created the vivid scene of two characters in song and dance. The young maiden's arms are spread open, her heels lifted from the ground, lifting her skirt with graceful movements. This evokes the whirling ballerinas of Impressionist master Edgar Degas. Comparing the two, Degas focuses primarily on the interaction between light and space in his depiction of the dancers, without heed to the ballerinas' expressions. Guan Liang does just the opposite by sidestepping these external elements, and emphasizing the emotive expressions in the subjects' eyes. In the lot on offer, the village maiden and the young shepherd make eyes at each other, with one calling and the other responding, both in the throes of delight. Their flirtation is interpreted with great precision. The flowing lines that leap upon the page reflect painter and poet Shi Tao's words explaining an artistic theory from the first chapter of Hua yu lu: "The dynamic lines must be whirling, while the more placid lines must be turning." In this way, the viewer is lulled into the pastoral mood of the shepherd's song, lingering in its wake.
Among Guan Liang's works depicting Chinese opera characters, very few occupy the entire space of the paper in their composition. More frequently, the artist leaves blank space beneath the characters' feet. This painting is no exception. The characters are situated in the upper part of the paper, with a large unoccupied space beneath them. Perhaps this can be attributed to Liang Guan's visual perspective as he sat in the audience of the performance. At the time, stages were erected on an elevated platform, requiring audience member to crane their necks upward to see the drama. All the empty space left in the bottom portion of this work approximates the audience experience and perceived distance from the actors on stage. Guan Liang remained faithful to preserving the reality of the theatre, revealing his boundless admiration and reverence for opera. Guan Liang practiced deep restraint in his depictions, but was able to bring the theatre to life. Emotive expressions fly from the ink, and in these ways the artist professes his devotion to this sacred space, the opera stage.
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