It has been more than a century since oil painting was introdused to China. Being one of the most significant artists who introduce oil painting to China, Guan Liang is both a preacher and pioneer of early imported oil paintings. With a borderless vision of art and culture, Guan devoted his life to the study of cultural differences between Eastern and Western arts. He has gone through a path that is one of its kind, and thereby creating a unique art that registers the simple and spontaneous sentiments, and the unique thoughts and tastes of the Chinese people in his time.
In 1917, Guan had abandoned his studies on mathematics and science in Japan before he transferred to the Pacific Arts School in Tokyo. He then studied western oil painting under the instruction of Nakamura Fusetsu and Fujishima Takeji. Since the majority of Japanese artists came under the influence of European Impressionism, Guan did not receive the kind of old school training for traditional Realist painters. Instead, his Realist painting techniques were developed alongside with the revolutionary move of Impressionism, and his works bore the stamp of the influences of Monet and Manet. Guan believed that "culture not taken in remains others, but cultural intakes become ours". This belief became the motivation for Guan's in-depth study on the essences of different schools and styles of Western art, to create a Chinese art that speaks for his own people, situated in a new era of evolutions without end.
Guan's art is classified into oil, ink, watercolor painting, and simply drawing. His artistic education started with oil painting, which is the foundation for his later painting of dramatic characters in Chinese ink. Guan's close friend Jin Rong mentioned the following account in retrospection, "Once, we talked about the creation of oil painting. He told me his had experimented on new ways to do oil painting that suits his styles, and how he hoped to find a new broad way bearing the traits of our own country and people". Stralsund, Germany (Lot 522) and The Shipyard (Lot 521) best illustrate the unique character of Guan's Chinese modern oil paintings.
In 1957, Guan Liang in the company of an artists group, including renowned Chinese artists Li Keran and Fu Baoshi, went on an art tour in East Germany. Stralsund, Germany was created in this period. Guan made a reoccurrence of this immemorial country at the side of the Blue Danule in this painting. Stralsund Church, also named St Mary's Church in southern Germany is a resplendent building with a long history embedded in its classic simplicity, epitomizing the cultural and intellectual development of mankind. Painting comes from the heart. In order to convey his good-willed appreciation for the people and scenery of Germany, Guan departs from the Realist approach and seeks to express his innermost feelings with the more conceptual and sentimental way of Chinese art, which stirs in spectators' mind with stronger resonance. The shapes, colors and lines in Guan's oil painting are arranged with originality. The sophisticated lines of Chinese ink painting are translated into his oil painting as the predominant artistic vocabulary. In Stralsund, Germany, Guan uses clear simple lines to divide the elegant church surrounded by closely packed buildings with its green riverside view, with brushstrokes both bold and delicate. The dual characters of refinement and simplicity result in a refreshing air of originality in Guan's painting. Apart from his superb skills in making lines, Guan is also a master of color. His bold combination of colors is tinged with his lyrical mood and infused with subjective feelings without disrupting the order of the Nature. He depicts the warmth and hope that the church conjures up, with patches of bright orange, titian red and yolk-like yellow in a harmonious combination. With minimal brushstrokes, Guan manages to capture the moment of leisure ravished by the two people in angling by the river, harking back to the peaceful ambiance in Monet's painting.
The Shipyard is another masterpiece by Guan, where he proves to be more than a landscape painter, with a stronger emphasis on the subject matter and form. The painting depicts a company of shipbuilders sweating over the making of an enormous ship as a product of modernity. Guan simplifies the human figures in sketchy but nevertheless succinct outline, reducing a lot of tedious details, to let the power of form speak for itself. He rejects redundancy in brushstrokes, which in his own words, 'what used to be painted with ten brushstrokes, can actually be painted with five.' In fact, the use of simple lines to accentuate the spirit of figure and scenery can be traced back to North Sung Dynasty, from the refined brushstroke of Kuo Chung-shu in Travelling on a River in Snow, to the succinct ink painting by the Eight Literati painters in the Ming Dynasty. It can be observed that Guan has made selective 'intake' of elements of traditional Chinese art in evolution, and channeling them through the media of Western art to create a Chinese-style oil painting. In The Shipyard, Guan takes the traditional way of exploiting lines to the extreme. In order to capture the structural spirit of the ship factory, the lines of the ship body, the mechanics gear, and the lifting arm of the crane, are so rough, so heavy, and so condense, that create strong visual and sensual effect. Guan vents his passion for the New China under construction in each powerful line charged with energy. Adding an interestingly light contrast to the heaviness of the composition are the straight line suspending from the top of the crane, and the very thin wire across mid-air. The dull color of the ship factory contrasts with the clear blue sky, and the red at its bottom, again conveys the painter's admiration for the shipbuilders in labor, and his youthful aspiration for modern China blooming in a new era.
An art style bears the trademark of the artist's own qualities and traces of self-cultivation. The adorable modesty and spontaneous simplicity shown in Guan's art are the artistic manifestation of his true personality. The way it "renders wisdom in simplicity, making wit of what is apparently stupid" is itself the essence of traditional Chinese philosophies. The most casual brushstroke is done with meticulous effort. Despite the environmental constraints during the period of the Sino-Japanese war and the Cultural Revolution, Guan's passion for oil painting never ceases and he keeps inventing new concepts and ways to express the thoughts, emotions, and tastes of the Chinese people, so that people tell immediately that his painting, of Chinese origin, is in its own way, nonetheless as good as Western oil painting. Guan's ardent passion not only allows him to pioneer in the development of modern Chinese art, but also enriches the artistic resources for the whole world.