Sotheby’s 20th Century Chinese Art Department Inaugural Auction

HONG KONG – Sotheby’s sales of 20thCentury Chinese Art (formerly known as “Modern Chinese Art”) have been highly successful over the years. This year, Sotheby’s Hong Kong has officially established the 20thCentury Chinese Art Department, as distinct from the Contemporary Chinese Art Department. The inaugural auction of this auction category is scheduled for this Autumn.

The auction will assemble the important works by legendary 20th century Chinese artists from different historical epochs, including the pre-1949 period, the 1949-1976-period covering the inauguration of new China and Cultural Revolution; and the period from mid to late 1980s. The works will be offered at the Evening Sale of Modern and Contemporary Asian Art at 7:30pm, 4th October and 20th Century Chinese Art auction at 10 am, 5th October respectively. A total of approximately 125 lots are estimated at HK$170 million.

Lily Lee, Head of 20thCentury Chinese Art Department, Sotheby’s China and Southeast Asia, said: “Behind the history of 20th century modern Chinese art is a history of inbound and overseas migration of Chinese artists. For the auction this autumn, more than 100 lots will be offered in three chronological categories: the pre-1949 period; the 1949 to 1976 period as well as the period from 1976 to mid and late 1980s. The idea is to demonstrate the significance of the works, in terms of market development and history,and with the view of broadening the market scope for 20th century Chinese art auctions of Sotheby’s Hong Kong now and for the future.”

The highlight of this period of work is Maobitou Cape (The Sound of The Waves) (est. HK$18-25 million) by Taiwanese artist Chen Chengbo (1895-1947) in 1939. In the years between 1938 and 1943, Chen went back to Taiwan after a stint in Shanghai. Although life was difficult in Taiwan under the specter of Second World War and prevailing economic hardship, he took to painting outdoors in various scenic spots across the island. It was during then that Maobitou Cape (The Sound of The Waves) was accomplished. Applying the circular composition techniques for which he was most celebrated, headministered the work with smooth-flowing lines and dense colour shades to achieve a harmonious contrast between a sturdy old tree in the foreground and the foamy white waves of a watery backdrop. It also evokes the solitude of a lone angler delineated in the painting as much as that of the artist who created it. Maobitou Cape (The Sound of the Waves) was honoured at the second Taiwan Prefecture Exhibition held by the Japan Governor-General’s Office during the period of Japanese occupation. Specially composed for this occasion, it was one of the very few large oil paintings showcased and a work highly representative of 20th century modern Chinese art developments before 1949.

1949 – 1976 – works completed in China
Nanchang Uprising (est. HK$900,000-1.5 million) is a revolutionary painting created by Wang Zhenghua (b. 1937) in 1977. Measuring 172.7 cm by 297.2 cm, this enormous painting is an art classic of Red China. Depicted in it is the Nanchang Uprising incident led by Zhou Enlai and Zhu De in 1927, symbolizing the establishment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Through fine, meticulous brushwork, the artist conveys a heightened sense of drama in character portrayals, echoing the qualities of propaganda art from the Cultural Revolution. However, the ambience of cool colour tones employed marks a sharp departure from the aesthetic principles of “redness”, “brightness” and “vividness” popular during this historical period. In fact, it seems to offer a calm introspection on the incident, in which the hardship of revolution is savoured. It is expected that this historic piece of epical scale will generate intense bidding.

1949 – 1976 – works completed outside China
Untitled 1958-1 (est. HK$3-4.5 million) was created by Zhao Wuji (Zao Wou-ki; b.1921) in 1958. From the mid 1950s, Zhao’s paintings gradually emerged from the symbolism of Chinese oracle bone inscriptions. Imbued with abstract symbols floating in space and evolving colour forms, his works demonstrated a notable shift towards pure abstract expressions, which invest a quality of Oriental mysticism in them. All the classic elements of this painterly style are reflected through Untitled 1958-1. An emphasis on the gradual metamorphosis of light and shadows, combined with layering of intense colours, produce visually magnified and transparency effects in this work.

Executed in 1998, A Great Collector (est.HK$800,000-1.2 million) was painted by 3W. At first glance, A Great Collector appears to parody the feudal society for its beliefs in male superiority and contempt of women. But the truth is that it carries a different theme.The gentleman seated stoically in the middle here is Duan Fang (1861-1911), a key politician of the late Qing dynasty. But he is better known to posterity as a great antique collector and erudite archaeology scholar. Sparing no resources, he assembled a collection of bronze and imprints of ancient Chinese scripts, the finest of his generation. Artefacts from his private collection are now exhibited in museums scattered across the world but his writings on art are still considered mandatory reference material for budding antique enthusiasts. Duan is flanked by two beautiful women in the painting,who each personify an exquisite piece of art. The image of a dollar note in the background has obvious undertones: Apart from a refined taste and discerning eye, it also takes financial wealth to build a superlative antique collection. Besides being famous for their surrealistic interpretations, 3W works are also noted for their “allusion” technique, a hallmark of postmodernism in the world of art, where references from the past are drawn to illuminate the present. Having established a distinctive style of their own in Chinese art, 3W works are a clear favourite among international collectors.

1976 – mid and late 1980s
Scenery of the Lijiang River (est. HK$6-8 million), painted by Wu Guanzhong (b. 1919) towards the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1975, depicts a lovely spring scene in Lijiang. At the time, Wu was 56 years old, so this piece is considered to be a mature work and one that augurs the nativism movement that followed. In the present example, he made deliberate use of ink and Chinese-style brushwork, while harnessing oil and Chinese painting techniques to evoke the picturesque beauty of Jiangnan region. Under this eclectic style, the lines flowing from the tip of his brush come across as neither Chinese nor Western but are so fluently administered with the liberal use of colours to express the nuances of Oriental elegance.

Zhu Ming (Ju Ming; b. 1938) is Taiwan’s most influential sculptor. His early works dwell primarily on nature and rustic themes. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, he started experimenting with various materials including wood and bronze, while boldly incorporating the motif of Taijiquan (Tai Chi), a martial art form that is quintessentially Chinese, into his art. Successfully blending the elements of Eastern and Western modernism, he fostered an instantly recognizable individual style, to widespread international acclaim. This lot, Single Whip (est. HK$5-7 million), belongs to Ju Ming’s extremely popular Tai Chi Series. Standing at 1.8 m, it depicts a Tai Chi practitioner combining awesome strength and grace, with both arms wide open.

Another important work to surface during this period is Chen Yifei (1946-2005)’s Tibetans on Plateau (est.HK$2-3 million). Executed in 1999, it represents the “Tibet phase” of his career. In 1988, Chen Yifei was touring northern Tibet and southern Gansu, where he developed an affinity with Tibet’s mysterious social customs inspiring him to work on a series of Tibet-themed oil paintings in the next decade. The majority of works from Chen Yifei’s Tibet series are distinguished by a raw and unrestrained painting style to highlight the rugged conditions of Tibetan life. Dramatic colours are also deployed with the same intent. Depicted from an elevated and a wide-angle perspective, the protagonists in Tibetans on Plateau appear slightly distorted in shape. Their standing postures are unrefined, their hand gestures are ambivalent and their expressions are muted. Favouring an approach of realism, the painter delineated with considerable accuracy the tanned complexion, coarseness and straightforward simplicity of Tibetans. After its completion, Tibetans on Plateau was featured in several international art exhibitions and publications to become one of Chen Yifei’s most paramount and best-loved works.