'Chinese artist Guan Liang effortlessly delivers the tranquility, freeness, elegance, and lyrical grace inherent in Chinese paintings with Western techniques as framework, and Chinese artistic spirit as soul, creating an epochal yet visionary art form that exalts the spirit of traditional Chinese paintings. Guan Liang lives and breathes artistic creations.'
- Guo Moruo
This heartfelt statement came from one of the most renowned authors in the early 20th Century China, Guo Moruo, and it accurately captured the artistic essence of Scenery in Germany (Lot 15) by Guan Liang, painted in 1957. Guan and Guo were the closest of friends; and Guan, upon Guo's encouragement, set his paint brush aside and joined the Nationalist government for the Northern Expedition, one of the journeys that put him in an emotional state of displacement and hardship between the 1920's and 1940's, a time when China witnessed dramatic historic transitions. Guan's art also experienced a remarkable phase of evolution, as he taught in a number of high-repute art schools in Wuchang, Guangzhou and Hangzhou. The artist began studying dramatic figures and ink art during this 30-year span; and oil painting - an art form he excelled in - was transformed by Guan's self-discovery. As a result, he found his signature style in this incredible journey.
TRANSITIONS IN GUAN LIANG'S OIL PAINTING
Guan Liang graduated from Tokyo Pacific University of the Arts in 1922, majoring in oil paintings. This was where he received solid, academic artistic training. Guan immersed himself in Western art in its whole stylistic periods, from Renaissance, Impressionism, to modern art, and built his creative language based on Western artistic theories. His landscapes have the touch of Impressionistic senses, as shown in his 1950 oil painting Summer Palace. This piece captures an outdoor panorama in a moment of eternity with soft yet rich layers of colours. In this piece, Guan infuses Foxiang Ge ('Tower of Buddhist Incense') on Wanshou Mountain with breathtaking vividness and structural stability rooted in his academic training; his execution also exhibits a post-Impressionistic focus on figurativeness of his subject matters (Fig. 1). His portraits and still-lifes of this particular period are heavily characterised by saturated, vibrant colours reminiscent of the Fauvism tradition, with wild brushwork and two-dimensional composition, as illustrated in Flowers in Bloom (Fig. 2) and Lady (Fig. 3). The artist even turns his still-lifes into geometric forms in exploring the compositional style of Le Nabis - semi-realistic, symbolic, and structured with neutral tones (Fig. 4).
Ni Yide, fellow artist and Guan Liang's colleague at Wuchang Art School, recalled, 'We were not interested in copying the works of these artists when we studied their oeuvre. The act of copying other people's paintings robs artists of their capabilities to reinvent their works. Drawing from these artists' strengths to empower our creative energy is the only answer.' In examining Guan Liang's pieces, viewers would invariably notice that Guan Liang's work still retains a distinctive Chinese artistic flair. This is reflected by his use of black to outline the figures and objects. He masters his strength application and rhythm fluently with black silhouette, attesting to the aesthetic of ink art and brushwork that dominated Chinese painting since the Yuan Dynasty.
CHINESE STUDIES AS FRAMEWORK AND WESTERN LEARNING FOR APPLICATION
Advocating for a distinguishing Chinese sentiment in oil paintings has been Guan Liang's lifelong quest. He asserts that the manifestation of Chinese sensibility with Western mediums is more than merely using Chinese painting techniques and motifs: it has to include Chinese stylistic forms and spirit. That being said, the Chinese concepts in his oils shifted: his paintings evolved from simple ink shade variations to full-dimensioned state of mind and realisation in the 50's and 60's. Scenery in Germany is Guan's signature piece of this period: the branches and vegetation stand sparsely erect by the tall building. A figure is outlined in simple, dark strokes in the centre of the composition. The minimalistic silhouette highlights the dimensional rhythm of the close-up, medium shot and the long shot, while reflecting the contrast between sparseness and density, and yin and yang of life in Chinese landscapes. Since the Six Dynasties, a more simplistic brushwork and ink variation further defined Chinese art, thanks to Taoist's belief in 'colours are provocative and blind people' and the popular, minimalistic expression of Zen. In Scenery in Germany, Guan Liang mixes swaths of white into his palette, lending more clarity to the cerulean skies and suppleness to the greenish-yellow shoots. His use of tints creates a sense of softness and warmness. The facades of the building in this piece are void of dramatic light and shades, yet the layering of colours is exquisite and meticulously arranged to evoke a peaceful quality which is completely different from that of Western modern art tradition (Fig. 5).
In 1957, Guan Liang and Li Keran - on behalf of the China government - visited East Germany for the opening ceremony of the Chinese Exhibition, and travelled to various destinations in the country to paint and sketch outdoor in official capacity. Guan had always wanted to see Western masterpieces in person since his studies in Japan, and he was handsomely rewarded with fresh inspirations by Europe's scenic terrains and cultures. Guan subsequently created many brightly-coloured oils, paying homage to the magnificent German sceneries (Fig. 5). This thematic shift did not affect the artist's creative perception, earnestly displayed in his work. Guan once said of his artistic creations: 'Technically, I want to focus more on the fluidity in ethnic paintings; my colour application is less-saturated, and my palette arrangement is much more versatile.' Instead of a drastic change in style, German landscapes inspired Guan with another interpretive option on restraints and quietude - it is another vehicle for expressing Chinese artistic sensibility.