“In this tiny space, this small world of less than forty square meters, I’ve roamed Mount Huaguo and been to the Southern Heavenly Gates, I’ve travelled to the Crystal Palace and visited Hall of Last Judgement…This space even leads me, frequently, to the ancient and wondrous worlds of mythology, and grants me a pair of colourful wings that whisks my naïve and innocent imagination to somewhere far, far away.”
Excerpt from Memoirs of Guan Liang, Chapter 1
Guan Liang’s passion for art originated in his youth. He fondly remembered being taken to the Chinese opera by his father, and later collecting the picture cards of opera characters that came inside boxes of cigarettes. In the sixty years of his creative life, Guan Liang lost none of his imaginative innocence, childlike and boundless, as he created an impressive collection of pieces that emanated with a bright purity, suggesting not a trace of the tumult of the 20th century. Guan Liang’s creative style reveals his emergence beyond tradition as well as the influence of Western art. His Beijing opera subjects, universally beloved, were literally figures of the stage, but all of his work – whether it was the artist’s vigorous portrayal of landscapes, people, or still objects – invoked the presence of the performance stage.
Sotheby’s Modern Asian Art Department is honoured to present twenty of Guan Liang’s works at this Autumn, all from a single private collection. They include oils, ink and colour, watercolour, and pencil sketches, with subjects including Beijing opera, human figures, landscapes, and still lifes. The earliest work is from 1920s, a decade from which very few paintings by the artist are available, and extend to the years following the Reform and Opening-Up of China. Providing a comprehensive view of Guan Liang’s works over a lifetime, this is truly a rare sale in the Asian market.
The use of rich and full colour is one of the important trademarks of Guan Liang’s work. Through colour, the artist transmits an aura of untainted innocence, and his well wishes for all of humanity. From 1917 to 1922, the artist studied at Tokyo’s Pacific Art Society and the Kawabata Academy of Painting. Under the instruction of Fujishima Takeji and Fusetsu Nakamura, both of whom belonged to the first generation of Japanese oil painters, Guan Liang learned to adopt the figurative techniques of Impressionism, while also becoming deeply familiar with Cubism, Fauvism, and the other movements of modernism. The earliest extant work by Guan Liang, a still life of a vase from 1927, is a testament to Guan Liang’s thorough investigation of Western art. Flowers in a Vase (Lot 1033) represents a pinnacle in the artist’s use of oil in still-life paintings. The piece is a ravishing portrayal of regal peonies, all rendered in a paint-drenched brush, in deep reds, brilliant yellows, and snow-white petals. The colours are pure and vivid, most likely directly squeezed from tubes of paint. These absolute, unmixed colours create a bright and eye-catching visual charm.
At the same time, the artist did not neglect to include elements of Eastern aesthetics in this painting. In 1942, Qi Baishi, a painter Guan Liang had long admired, made a pithy inscription in Li Keran’s copy of Guan Liang’s catalogue. It read: “Guan Liang possesses artistic charm.” In 1956, along with Li Keran, Guan Liang paid a visit to the old master, who was then over 90 years old, and was enlightened by the supreme skill exhibited in Qi Baishi’s paintings of flowers and birds. Flowers in a Vase, then, not only ingeniously invokes the classical theme in Chinese painting of “the noble man beneath a pine tree” with the man adorned upon the porcelain vase, the colour and lustre of the leaves are deep as dark jade, conjuring Qi Baishi’s signatural “red flower and ink leaves”. The primitive and wilful brushwork belong to the tradition of the Chinese xieyi spirit, which stands in complete contrast with the meticulous realism of Guan Liang’s earlier oil paintings. In this way, one can see the maturity of the artist’s style, which blends the traditions of East and West with great virtuosity.
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