Portraiture is no less intriguing than human beings. It is one of the classic genres that never have ceased in the history of art. Not only does it depict physical body and its movements, it also encompasses thoughts, sensations, emotions and imaginations. Fine artists always have a pair of keen eyes and unique point of view to illustrate the different happenings in life. They depict a moment of human existence and unveil even the trajectory of our soul.
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence... as a snail leaves its slime.” - Francis Bacon
The ethnicity and emblem of time in portraiture
Among the local progression of modern art in China in the twentieth century, portraiture serves as an icon of the time. In 1942, Mao Zedong pointed out in Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art that ‘the Socialist life is the only source of inspiration for literature and art’, and that artists should go to factories, the countryside and troops to experience their way of living before creating art. Therefore, Social Realist paintings that depict politically correct ‘red, bright and shining’ working force and political figures who stand together with the people became an emblem of the period from 1930s to 1960s. Early Chinese oil painter Fan Tchunpi (1898-1986) painted portraits without political intentions, but her works nonetheless reflect faces in the Republic society, such as the sitter in Portrait of Wang Wenbin (Lot 405). As the Reform and Opening up Policy taking place in 1980s, artists such as Ai Xuan, Chen Danqing and Luo Zhongli enjoyed greater freedom in their artistic expression. They started to include scenes from everyday life to art, creating series of portraits that reflect the true image of people’s life and emotions. Towards the late 1980s, portraiture even began to appear as satires to Chinese ideologies, demonstrating that portraiture is of particular historical importance in recording the facets of a particular time.
Upon the end of cultural revolution, Ai Xuan (B. 1947) went by himself to Sichuan Fine Arts Institute for a month and this journey became a crucial turning point in his artistic career. There, he did not have to paint following orders from the army as he was used to. He spent his days with teachers and students from the school, lying on the road to admire the moon, drinking, talking, and dancing. This unprecedented experience of freedom allowed Ai Xuan to release his years of suppressed emotions. Thereafter he is able to let his true feelings flow with his brushstrokes.
In Ai Xuan’s portraitures from the 80s, Tibetan children and teenagers are rendered far away from the viewer. We could only guess from their profile or back. Towards the 90s however, he brought subjects in his paintings a lot closer, finely depicting their facial expression to unveil their inner sentiments. The 1995 Tibetan Girl (lot 404) centers on a girl wearing traditional Tibetan padded jacket, pensively leaning against a window. She almost occupied the entire composition, with her facial expression clearly shown. In his fine brushstrokes, Ai Xuan communicates emotions through his subjects’ eyes. The girl looks up to the sky, leading viewers to follow her gaze and wonder what is in her mind. He successfully brought viewers into the painting, to sense from self to another being, the loneliness and the emptiness, the pure and the mysterious feeling. The interior atmosphere was fully rendered in his exquisite mastery of naturalist technique. He purposefully included a window, through which we see the snow-covered land. As the thin and cold air on the highland touches the window glass with warm air from the house, they become frost and water droplets. This delicate light is shown in the reflection of the copperware by the window, together composing a lyrical atmosphere.
Towards the end of Meiji period, the ‘People’s painter’ Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934) became known in the Japanese art scene. His Bijin-ga (paintings of beautiful women) demonstrates how woman’s right began to gain awareness after the Meiji Restoration. Famous Korean traditional ink painters Kim Ki-Chang (1914-2001) created folk paintings that depict the life and spirit of Koreans, for example, Quiet Listening (Lot 413).
The inner world of human being
American Chinese artist Yun Gee (1905-1963) took dreams and illusions that distinguish from reality and sensibility as his source of inspiration. He broke off from the convention of applying learnt experience as the basis of forms. Female nude bust (Lot 411) is his attempt to combine the active thoughts and the instinctual experience of unconsciousness and dreams, revealing the ideal world in the deepest of his psyche.
The beauty of human body
The unique curve and volume of human body is the source of inspiration for many artists. Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) (Lot 564), Hua Tianyou (1901-1986) (Lot 565), Sanyu (1901-1966) (Lot 563), Wallace Ting (1929-2010) (Lot 373-376) all portrayed the beauty of human body through varying perspectives, whether it is in ink strokes, or semi-abstract works in brilliant colours, they present myriads of possibilities in the art of portraiture.
The study of human behavior
Some artists chose to make art of critical nature by taking ‘human’ as the subject of their works. Hanauma Bay Series/ Wikiwiki Tour (Lot 412) is a figural painting by Japanese artist Masami Teraoka (B. 1936) that guides viewers to reflect on our actions to this world as human beings.