In the 20th Century, the developments in Modern Asian art paralleled the advancement of concepts and techniques in the Western Art world. As the Eastern artists studying abroad returned to their homeland, they brought with them a plethora of Western art knowledge, which was extensively demonstrated through their revolutionized oil paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures. This maturation of modern art also had a significant impact on traditional ink painting, particularly in Shanghai. As the most open city in China since the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai became a vital developmental hub for modern ink painting.
Li Huayi was born in Shanghai on the eve of the founding of the People's Republic of China. At the early age of six, he began learning Chinese painting under the tutelage of Wang Jimei, the son of the famous master of Shanghainese school of painting and calligraphy, Wang Yiting. As Li grew up, he studied Western art with the painter Chang Chong-Jen who trained at the Belgian Royal Academy. In the 1980s, he moved to the United States to study in the world's most avant-garde and contemporary creative environment, the San Francisco Art Institute. Representing the trends of a new era, Li Huayi coincidentally expresses Pan Tianshou’s concept of “innovation from tradition” in National School of Fine Art. The idea is to develop modern ink paintings that are simultaneously different from and still corresponds with the "Chinese-Western combination" advocated by Lin Fengmian. Li Huayi’s In the Spirit of the Big Dipper (Lot 1036) represents the artist's first appearance at Sotheby's evening auction. Displayed in the context of global modern and contemporary art, his works are deeply rooted in traditional ink paintings but reflect a refreshing contemporary awareness.
Li Huayi’s ink paintings reveal the monumental range of the rivers and mountains of Song Dynasty artwork, as well as the extraordinary grandeur of the Northern Song Dynasty. When viewed from a distance, one may realize the contrast in traditional landscapes with Li’s unusual compositional style, transporting viewers into the realistic depiction of a close-up landscape. The composition is typical of the style at the time, diagonally cutting across the frame with subtle elegance. Despite breaking away from contemporary art, Li Huayi audaciously experiments with elements from Western concepts and techniques to further enhance his Chinese ink paintings, rendering an unimagined landscape. Within the painting In the Spirit of the Big Dipper, a giant cypress is illustrated. Its trunk boldly enters the image from the lower right of the image, traveling diagonally across towards the top left corner. Two branches extend away from the foreground, creating a dynamic depth while strengthening the balance in the composition. Although the roots are obstructed from view, the imagination roams out of the frame and into scenic mountains and the dangerous crumbling rocks. Created on a golden screen, In the Spirit of the Big Dipper is delicate and meticulous; the incorporation of the chiaroscuro of the wood creates stunning layers of rough texture, as well as depth. China traditionally uses trees as a symbolic metaphor for dragons; the same principle is being applied to this piece. The twisting body of the tree is akin to a dragon flying through the clouds radiating with powerful energy, it gives us a spiritual insight into the universe and exudes a feeling which transcends the physical world.
“Landscape is the energy inside your chest being released as a painting. In China, we say: outside we learn from nature, but inside we create from our hearts.”
Li Huayi’s landscapes were first created with traditional ink and paper. As his artistic language matured, he experimented relentlessly to further adapt his work to modern ideologies. The artist created the Multiple Screen Installation series in 2006, portraying them as installations to create a refreshing ink painting experience. In the Spirit of the Big Dipper was born as a continuation of Li’s previous series, Golden Gilded Screen series. In 2010, Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museum, Harvard Art Museums Robert D. Mowry wrote an article in "Li Huayi: Recent Works", which gave an in-depth analysis of Li Huayi’s artistic process:
“Traditional folding screens, both Chinese and Japanese, were intended to stand unsupported on the floor whereas Li Huayi prefers that his screens be flat-mounted on a wall so that the painting can easily be read. When asked why he would want to have a folding screen mounted flat on the wall, fully open, Li responded that his interest in painting screens is less in exploring the screen format per se than in perfecting the means of making a large-scale Chinese painting interesting and vibrant. He noted that many modern and contemporary Chinese artists have created large paintings, particularly to embellish the halls in important buildings, but that because Chinese paintings generally do not survive translation from modest to a grand scale, those large paintings, by and large, are not aesthetically successful, even if they accurately record important historical events. In thinking through the problem, Li realized that perhaps a screen's vertical folds - the breaks that separate one panel from the next - could be the key to enlivening large-scale Chinese compositions.”
In the Spirit of the Big Dipper was painted on two folding screens, a common ancient practice in the East. Li Huayi generates a Western contemporary presentation of looking through a window with traditional Chinese ink; such an innovative approach is developed by years of experimentation and a wide-ranging art education. From August 2019 to January 2020, the Honolulu Museum of Art is holding a large-scale solo exhibition for Li Huayi. In addition to showcasing the artist's creative process, Li’s large Golden Gilded Screens Series will be on display. The series highlights his achievements in innovating the oriental ink and landscape vision. Today, In the Spirit of the Big Dipper makes Li Huayi’s first debut in Sotheby’s Hong Kong evening sales; echoing Honolulu’s exhibition and creating a cherished opportunity for collectors to admire Li Huayi’s innovative creations!
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