Guan Liang's paintings express a simple innocence without becoming bourgeois. His characters' mood, character and psychology are fully expressed through simple strokes and quite thought provoking. Yeh Sheng-tao once wrote in praise of Guan Liang's paintings: "Brush Strokes that Capture the Essence - Admirable". He has had a deep and abiding influence on the development of contemporary Chinese abstract character portraits.
Simplicity was a prime element of Guan Liang's oil painting style, and to achieve it, he consciously diluted the complex interactions of light and shadow that create depth. His canvasses often exhibit a nearly flat effect throughout, which inevitably strengthens the expressive effect of line; thus a viewer's first impression of his paintings is often one of poised, flowing lines combined with lively and lucid color. Like a skilled magician, he seems to effortlessly produce images which, despite their deliberate distortions, somehow still faithfully present both outer form and inner essence. Likewise, in his oil technique, Guan Liang could ignore convention, applying paints alternately in thin layers or heavy daubs, even mixing them directly on the canvas, as long as it produced the effect he was looking for, and he would rather paint quickly to achieve vitality than to produce a polished work. But great art often conceals itself, and through the seemingly clumsy technique that nevertheless captures life, Guan Liang displays the true style of a master.
Painted in the 1940s, 'Pavilion in the Mountains' (Lot 199) is a picturesque scene of warmth and simplicity. A lone pavilion stands majestically upon an island on a serene lake. Vast cliffs tower above the scene, creating the overall image of calm isolation. The softly, muted palette, as though dimmed in the warmth of an afternoon haze. Such pavilions within a landscape are viewing places for natural surroundings in all seasons, and represent the acceptance of humankind within the cosmic cycle of nature--a key Daoist principle. Yet upon closer perusal we find that this pavilion is that of a thatched cottage or hut, simple and open to the air, and is thus more specifically the scholar's pavilion, which is frequently found in landscape painting beginning with the Yuan Dynasty when scholar-officials and artists fled from foreign rule and the destruction of all they loved in their culture. Eventually, the scholar's pavilion in the mountains, often depicted solitary and empty, became synonymous with the ideals of hermitage and retreat and suggested all the poignant nostalgia for the past, lost to the literati under foreign rule.
Guan Liang once said, "Traditional Chinese painting is primarily an expression of the spirit. The most effective method of strengthening and deepening this expression is to simplify forms to their utmost." For Guan Liang, to give vivid expression to the humanistic spirit in painting, to "let the brush run ahead," did not mean to simply portray a subject without calculation; instead, he was insistent that the artist must consider whether what he painted would resonate with the viewer and would truly move them.
Traveling to Japan in 1917, Guan Liang began studies at the Pacific Arts School of Tokyo. Under the tutelage of fine artists including Fusetsu Nakamura and Fujishima Takeji, Guan practiced realist techniques but developed great admiration for Manet, Monet, and van Gogh; his studies abroad also led to extensive contact with advocates of western modernism. Guan Liang's unique talents were already being recognized in the decades from the 1920s through the '40s, as events such as the 1924 Arts Society exhibition and a later solo exhibition in 1939 brought the artist much renown in the Shanghai art world. The chief hallmarks of Guan Liang's style were its purity and simplicity. Surfaces were flattened by the reduction of depth and contrasts between light and shadow in favor of the artists emphasis on a combination of refined, flowing lines and simple, lively color effects. For Guan Liang, the distinction between art and nature lay in the alteration of form, which he practiced with the goal of "making form that is much more simple, striking, and effortless, trimming away the nonessentials." The resulting aesthetic pleases with its elegant simplicity and a mixture of craft and uncalculated effect. A sense of practiced ease and the tendency toward simplified forms were both part of the nobility of expression of Guan Liang's art.
A 'Church in Berlin' (Lot 200) resonates a rural village scene. The vivid realism and deep contours and shading mark a strong evolution for the artist. In this work we gain a strong sense of the artist experimenting more extensively with oil, and Guan Liang no longer appears to emanate a style of ink. The rich palette of yellows and greens bestow a feeling of warmth and regeneration, while the limitation of colour shades allows for the artists' skilled brushwork attention to detail shine through.
Eastern art has exerted a degree of influence on many recent European artists: Some have sought a flattened effect, as in the work of Matisse, and the multiple viewpoints of Picasso's cubism corresponds well with traditional Chinese artistic notions, which similarly advocate the joining of natural features--rocks, trees, mountains-into unified entities. Many of the techniques and approaches in European art have appeared within the historical tradition of the East. The bizarre mix of images in a Chagall painting, no longer bound by an everyday temporal-spatial logic, may call to mind the depiction of dreamscapes in Chinese art that are often a feature of tapestry portraits and etchings from the Ming and Qing eras. Art and culture are always interrelated; "My own oil techniques tend to emphasize the flowing style of some of our ethnic art. I generally apply color lightly, but more thickly when necessary, even using the palette knife on occasion. I mix colors in many ways, but whether the effect is ideal only shows up on canvas and not on the palette, so I mix colors directly on the canvas. I also experiment with brushwork and I now prefer square brushes over the round ones I used to use. The base and the canvas are important too, and I prepare them well before painting. Another element I strive for is simplicity; I handle my subjects with reserve, which is part of our national character, an inward looking one, as a peace-loving people who have never invaded other territories."
In 1950s, members of the Shanghai art world responded to the call from Beijing, adding to the swell of urban youth leaving to work in the countryside and mountain regions. Many noteworthy artists of the time were dispatched to Inner Mongolia, western Fujian Province and the coal mines of the Huainan region. Instructed to go "deep into life" with the masses, they produced works based on the themes they found in those regions. For the artists it provided unusual experience and stimulation, and the depictions of the people's lives that grew out of that experience embodied their own personal sense of beauty and emotional responses. The artists trying to adapt to this era of the "new China" were spurred to find a balance between their previous styles and these new subjects drawn from real life. Guan Liang successfully embraced the painting of odes to the great motherland as a part of his art, to the extent that such work not only became a seminal influence in his creative process but was in addition a uniquely valuable contribution to the history of Chinese oil painting.
Guan Liang first painted in oils and later produced ink-wash paintings of theatrical characters, but the artist's characteristic style remains visible in both mediums even as he skillfully exploits their unique elements. This season, Christie's presents Guan Liang works featuring a number of themes in varying media, from outdoor landscapes to Beijing opera figures. Each displaying the central tenet of Guan Liang's painting, which is that expressive style and the spirit of a work should reflect the traits of the nation and its people, interpreted through the artist's personal stance.