From the 1950s to the 1960s, Guan Liang reached an artistic peak. He achieved creative maturity, excelling at various media and clearly establishing a personal style. For 10 years, China experienced the tumult of the Cultural Revolution. Guan could not avoid being criticized, because he had been a teacher with an abiding love of opera. He was innocent, but he "trembled when he heard the drums." He had no choice but to burn hundreds of his pictures—many years of hard work going up in smoke. This destruction was truly painful. During the Cultural Revolution, Guan did not put away his brushes entirely. The Red Guards often made him paint posters or figures from the model plays, works that were very limited in subject matter and style. This makes Arbor Day (Lot 1017) truly exceptional. The waning fervour for criticism in the late Cultural Revolution allowed Guan to take up the tools of Western painting and create this work, a rare piece of history that allows an unusual glimpse into the living environment and visual culture of China at the time.
The work features a rural tree-planting event during the Cultural Revolution. At the time, many young urbanites were sent to the countryside for re-education. The leadership vigorously promoted afforestation and improving the environment. The scale of this project was immense, and it became one of the marvels of the Cultural Revolution. The people in the image plant trees together to protect the countryside. There is not the slightest hint of negativity in this painting, which shows Guan's gentility and magnanimity. Even in those difficult times, he still tried to convey positivity in his work, planting seeds of hope. Guan Liang's use of colour is exquisite. Silvery-blue skies and pale grey homes provide the cool tones, conveying a quiet elegance outside of the buzz of an urban environment. He conveys nature with pale yellow, orange, maroon, and other warmer colours, creating a complementary tension between warm and cool and a visual balance in the entire picture. In addition to the cool and warm colours, the relationship between stillness and movement in the picture is reserved and stable. The people in the foreground quietly plow and weed. The artist created their gestures, which echo one another, with just a few brushstrokes. They appear to have stopped mid-motion, as if performing on a stage, yet they give the entire image a sense of rhythm. In the centre of the work, a young person with piercing eyes, like the burnt-ink eyes in certain Chinese ink paintings, wears a brick-red shirt; both attributes make the figure more prominent and inspires associations in the viewer's mind.
In the past two seasons, Sotheby's has featured some of Guan Liang's other rural landscapes. Cattle Pasturing sold for HKD 5,640,000, or 5 times the estimate, and Swineherd sold for HKD 1,750,000 or 3.5 times the estimate, showing that this subject matter is popular with collectors and that viewers are moved by the simple portrayals in the works. The rich composition of Planting Trees, which stems from a real, historical narrative, and the rarity of works from this period make these pieces even more attractive.
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