During World War II, Guan Liang travelled throughout northwest China collecting objects of local culture. He created many landscape paintings of important cultural and historical landmarks. Due to supply shortages at the time, oil paint was hard to come by, so he often used ink or watercolours. From the 1950s onward, as China embarked upon a socialist development program, Guan Liang’s landscapes came to portray scenes of China’s new society and the artist’s joyful embrace of the new era. The beautiful hopes of the nation and its people shone through in his paintings, thereby embodying the character of the nation. Guan's subjects were wide-ranging and comprehensive, and Summer Palace (Lot 1019) is one of the best of these works.
The Summer Palace in Beijing was a large imperial garden in the Qing period. In the 1950s, the new government allocated funds to renovate the palace and its gardens and open them to the public. As a result, the lavish grounds were no longer a representation imperial rule, but instead took on a new aspect socialist change in which China’s wealth was shared with the people. The verdant garden resembles a southern water town, which would have been familiar to Guan Liang, who hailed from southern China. In this garden, he seized the opportunity to paint from life. Confronted with this magnificent landscape, he took a panoramic perspective, looking toward Wanshou Mountain from one end of Kunming Lake. Here, he observed the grandness even in the humblest of things, like he did in Hangzhou Ling Yin Temple (Lot 1018). He absorbed the natural beauty of the lakes and mountains at the Summer Palace with just a glance. A small bridge sits in the foreground, and the overall image looks more like a large stage, with the viewer sitting on the other side of the curtain, appreciating the beauty and wisdom of Chinese gardens and architecture.
The Summer Palace was a major achievement in the traditional gardening arts, world-renowned for its skilful balance of the artificial and the natural. While it expressed the imperial family’s glory and style, the garden also retained natural subtleties. As they say, "Though it was made by man, it appears to have been bestowed by heaven." Situating gardens amidst mountains and waters created an ideal ecosystem of harmonious coexistence. This beautiful scene resonated with Guan Liang, because his landscape paintings often stressed "the unity of man and nature."
Within the framework of "red themes", socialist realism dominated creative models for Chinese artists in the 1950s and 1960s. Looking back on Guan Liang’s work, he managed to retain a large degree of stylistic freedom. His expressive methods did not fall into a set pattern, showing that he had not abandoned the Modernist spirit and that he always pursued a natural sincerity. Guan used loose, fine brushstrokes to express the abundance of a summer garden. The piece is reminiscent of the garden paintings of Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir. We can see traces of what Guan Liang learned of Western painting when he was in Japan. His nimble, simple, and terse brushwork is a synthesis of what he learned, and yet cannot be attributed to anyone else as it also reveals an original Chinese cultural aesthetic.
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