The art of Guan Liang can be classified into oil, ink, watercolor paintings, and drawings. His artistic education began in oil painting, which is the foundation for his later painting of drama characters in Chinese ink. Guan Liang's love for Beijing opera added to the breadth of subject matters in his art; his works on this theme fuse the appeal of that popular entertainment form with the poetry of ink as a medium to yield works of strong individuality. Guan favoured the use of incisive lines and simplified compositions to express the dramatic yet disciplined characters of Beijing opera seen on stage (Fig. 1). Guan strived to depict the soul of the opera characters through understanding the essence of the dramatic story performed, rather than merely imitating the external features by portraying their makeup, costume and actions.
The characters in Guan's Beijing Operas series are all based on traditional plays, but through his innovative brushwork and vision, they become animated and vivid in style. The painter Jin Rong (1985-1928), who was also Guan's best friend, recalled that "Mr. Guan Liang often mentioned that Bada Shanren painted the eyes of eagles into rectangular shape. Eagles have the most striking eyes. Their rectangular shape makes them appear more powerful than those of the round shape." Evidently, it is also through the eyes that Guan Liang chose to express the inner psyche and emotions of figures in Drunken Li Bai the Poet (Lot 1353).The drama alludes to the historical story Drunken Li Bai Wrote in the Barbarian Scripts, Li Bai the famous Tang Dynasty (618-909) poet who went to the capital for examinations, but was expelled for not bribing the examination officers Yang Guozhong and Gao Lishi. Later, the Black Barbarians sent a state letter in foreign script to Emperor Tang Xuanzong, which nobody in the court could read. Officer He Zhizhang recommended Li Bai to be the translator, who interpreted the letter without any error. Pleased with Li Bai's knowledge, Emperor Tang Xuanzong asked Li to reply a letter in foreign script to impress the barbarians and flaunt national strength and power of the Tang court. Having completed the task, Li Bai asked the Emperor to assign Yang Guozhong and Gao Lishi to serve him, as a punishment for their unfair treatment and corruption. In this painting, Guan depicts Yang preparing ink for Li to paint and Gao holding one of Li's legs to make him comfortable while painting. The fear and shame in Yang and Gao's eyes that contrast with the confidence and concentration on Li's face are all captured in the artist's simple and subtle lines and brushstrokes. To emphasize the essence of the characters, Guan Liang deliberately simplified the forms of the body, sketching the outline with simple strokes and abandoning complicated details, and put his idea of "use only five strokes to paint the ten-strokes needed" into practice.
Lion Dancing (Lot 1354) depicts the traditional ceremony in Chinese Lunar New Year, which originates from Guangdong province in Southern China. During Spring Festival, people will celebrate and dance with the cloth-made lion together with music played by the gong and drums on the streets. With the appearance of this festive animal, it is believed that good fortune will be delivered to the local citizens. The cloth-made lion represents the mythical creature with a unicorn and a cyan nose, a pair of tusks and alert eyes; its head is as big as a large vessel. Lion dancing usually requires two people: one dances with the head and the other dances with the tail. The dancers express the lion's complex emotions of happiness, anger, sadness, cheerfulness, fright, doubt, greed and violence through their dance to make a successful performance. In this painting, Guan Liang tried to catch the lion's action and expressions as if he was depicting opera figures. Two lion dancers and the big Buddha's head holder raise their feet and progress in rhythm of the gong and drums. The artist deliberately simplified the decorative details on the lion's body and head and enlarged its big and wide eyes, so to achieve a sophisticated and uncomplicated aesthetic. The lion still remains fierce and powerful without appearing menacing, and the bright and flashy colours of red, orange, yellow and green build a cheerful, festive atmosphere of the painting.
Guan Liang's works are best-known for their balance in spatial emptiness and richness. He ingeniously avoids a complicated composition which would diminish the interest and imagination of the painting, to emphasize the complex emotions of the characters, the dramatic plots and the expressive body movements. Lion Dancing is an active scene with a focus on the gait of the lion and the big head Buddha figure, which stand out in a blank background. The festive sounds of the gong, drums and fireworks could almost be heard out of the painting.
The unaffected modesty and spontaneous simplicity of Guan's brushwork are the artistic manifestation of the true personality and genius of the artist. The way he 'renders wisdom in simplicity', 'making wit of what is apparently stupid' are essential to traditional Chinese philosophies. The most casual brushstroke is done with the most meticulous effort. Guan's paintings of the Chinese opera exemplify how ink as a medium has been constantly reinvented and how Chinese artists have found innovation in traditional modes of expressions. Guan Liang's art tells us that austerity is not a prerequisite for great work, but that unadorned simplicity and genuine feeling can communicate just as well with any viewer.