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    Sale 2603

    Chinese 20th Century Art (Evening Sale)

    24 May 2008, Hong Kong

  • Lot 196


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    (LIAO JICHUN, 1902-1976)
    signed 'Chi-Ch'un; C. Liao' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower left)
    oil on canvas
    91 x 116 cm. (35 3/4 x 45 3/4 in.)
    Painted circa 1970

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    See eternity within the moment and the four seas in a single glance!
    Embrace the world in your work; gather it all at the tip of your brush!
    -From the "Wen Fu," by Lu Ji (261-303 A.D.), Jin Dynasty

    The earliest work in China to systematically discuss issues involved in literary creation was the "Wen Fu," or "Treatise on Literary Style," written in the form of a poetic rhapsody by Lu Ji, literary scholar of the Western Jin Dynasty. But some of the observations it contains-such as "embrace the world in your work; gather all things at the tip of your brush"-suggest it can equally be viewed as a treatise on the arts in general, and it was this aspect of the work that helped cement the close relationship between China's poetics and its painting. With insight gained from experience, Lu Ji provided a lively analysis in his Wen Fu of the psychological aspects of the creative process, and set out an overall philosophy of aesthetics and art education. Lu posits that strong emotion is the source and starting point of all literary creation, and that a host of psychological factors interweave when the artistic imagination begins to work: emotion, rational reflection, images, and literary ideas gush forth as the work's conception begins to take shape. One of the great contributions of the Wen Fu was its affirmation of the power of the artistic imagination, and its vivid expression of the creative mind in the process of conceiving a work: "Embracing the world in one's work, gathering all things at the tip of one's brush; seeing eternity in one moment and the four seas in a single glance." Despite being one of China's earliest explorations into the specifics of literary creativity, the Wen Fu had a lasting, fundamental influence on China's later aesthetic thought. Today, the limitless imagination and creative power that Liao Jichun possessed are key to our understanding of his art, and the ways in which his search for artistic discovery led him into the realms of eastern and western art, religious belief, and dimensions of mind and spirit.

    The Psychology of Artistic Creation

    The discovery and creation of art by human beings was linked with the unique kind of satisfaction it brings at the emotional and spiritual level. Psychologists would explain this as a neurological phenomenon, a natural sensation of physical well-being. To some extent, then, the reality captured or reproduced in a work of art is not connected to knowledge or reason, but to our minds' capacities for feeling and emotion. Therefore, beyond merely serving as a vehicle for conveying information between minds, a work of art must also be able to call forth common instinctive reactions and to convey secret inner states.

    Art transcends our faculties of direct perception, especially through our ability to interpret the images that are present or hinted at in the flat pictorial space, just as we interpret musical forms or the romantic outlook of the poet. Art's historical development has led us, in the current era, to the exploration of abstraction as a chief focus of artistic thought; painting has evolved beyond the stage of direct presentation of images, and instead reduces them to structures, colors, and lines as the most basic elements of artistic expression, letting us explore deeper levels of ideas and emotional activity.

    Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist of the 20th century, said, "The search for truth is more precious than its possession," a statement that can equally apply to the beauty embodied within art. That kind of beauty, existing as the object of a persistent and endless quest, can only be sought for, but never really possessed. It is only through undertaking the search that we are led toward new discoveries, toward a divination of beauty's meaning, and it is the search itself that gives life its meaning and its truth!

    Two of Liao Jichun's own dissertations on art, published respectively in the 1930s and the 1960s, illuminate why the abstract works of his late period are now viewed as the peak of his creative output, and offer glimpses into the evolution of his thinking and insight: "I distort or exaggerate the forms of what I paint in a way that accords with the sense of beauty.!KAbstract painting is a natural trend, because modern painting is no longer concerned with external visual experience, but with the direct expression of inner feeling. Now it is no longer a question of the choice between abstract or representational art: whether or not we present real forms, what matters is expressive content. The form of a painting is nothing more than a medium for the artist's spiritual expression." Liao's work was thus a vehicle through which he communicated powerful and well-defined abstract concepts, and through his pure color structures and the beautiful handling of his subjects, the works of his late period provide a fitting close to a lifetime of artistic creation and success.

    In Garden, Liao employs a basic palette of pastel yellows, pinks, and azure blues, accompanied by highly saturated complementary hues, in a canvas filled with all the fervor and natural expressiveness of Chinese art. Garden blends Liao Jichun's own warm, personal feeling with a sense of the special light and color native to Asia's subtropical regions. This artist displayed a fine sensitivity to the basic elements of painting through the spectrum of hues he chose to employ; he well understood how effectively pure, simple shades of color could highlight the feeling he sought in a particular work, and how new visual imagery and effects could be produced by a fundamental restructuring of color, line, and form. It was the interaction of these elements that seemingly allowed Liao to consistently arrive, in any of his paintings, at the perfect middle ground between reality and reverie. Color became the fundamental source of magic and fantasy that informs Liao's art: it sparks the imagination and works directly on the mood of the viewer, drawing them into the unique ambience of the imaginative world portrayed in his paintings.

    Fragmented Planes, Dissected Colors

    In the early 20th century, abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky outlined his discoveries about the interactions between art and psychology-but by "psychology," Kandinsky did not mean our stereotypical notion of coolly rational scientific enquiry, based on material evidence, but the mystical philosophy of theosophy that he embraced during his lifetime and which exerted a tremendous influence on his thinking. Kandinsky's art moved strongly toward interpreting the psychological, perceptive, associational, and symbolic aspects of color and form, and the distinctive elements of his thinking were set out in his 1912 essay "On the Spiritual in Art." He believed that pure primary colors such as blue and yellow would strongly influence our perception of space, and he used color to create illusions and to restructure flat, monotone spaces.

    Many of the fundamental theories and ideas discussed in the field of chromatology, the study of color, agree on a common point-that the mixture of fundamental colors such as the primaries, red, yellow, blue, and green result in white light, and in biological terms, these are the four basic colors that can be clearly perceived and distinguished even by infants. They are the colors that throughout the history of human civilization have constituted a global language through which basic aspects of human thought and culture, and symbols of ethnic or national traits, can be represented.

    Colors thus are not just simple elemental constructions, but are pathways that reflect our basic physiological natures and our visual perceptions, and in artistic terms, it is color that often determines the depth of expressive potential in a subjective image or the symbolic nature of a perceptual experience.

    Western artists who have excelled in the use of pure color include Kandinsky, who used lines, forms, and "musical colors" to reproduce inner feelings and images, leading us toward the creative spirit hidden beneath the outer forms of things. Piet Mondrian used black, white, and other primary colors within subtly varied grids and outlines to communicate visually his sense of the "dynamic equilibrium" of the universe. Kazimir Malevich overlaid white blocks with other white blocks, expressing a kind of "ultimate truth." Yves Klein expressed "limitless space" through the use of a single blue tone, and in a way that parallels the Sanskrit concept of "seed words," used such tones to create images and spatial distance.

    In the East, great modern artists such as Liao Jichun and Wu Dayu shared the goal of uniting abstract and coloristic concepts with elements that reflected their ethnic roots; both also displayed highly individual aesthetic concepts and worldviews in their work. In Liao Jichun's Garden especially, we see the artist employing, in the oil medium, a kind of oblique perspective, a technique unique to Chinese art in which the spatial structure of the flat painting surface suggests multiple viewing angles. The painting enfolds us within a garden brimming with color, as if we were viewing it through the brilliant reflecting panes of a crystal, communicating to us the artist's zeal for both the beauty and the truth of the scene and his warm embrace of the world as an artist.

    Romanticism: Ideal Beauty and the Zeitgeist

    In China, the idea that art should be "modeled after nature" was held as an aesthetic ideal from the Song Dynasty onward, and in the Yuan Dynasty, the notion arose that the artist should "find the essence" of his subject. These ideas on painting, woven through the evolution of Chinese aesthetic thought in various eras, illustrate the historical trend from objectified portrayals toward more subjective ones. By the Ming era, the favored approach featured artistic depictions which stood at one remove from the natural world and allowed artists to convey their own symbolic conceptions, and in fact, in the art of the times, this was followed by a wave of romanticism. The traditional art of China could only have evolved to that point as the result of refinements and distillations achieved during successive eras, and the depth of the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings contained in China's artistic tradition would later provide a solid foundation for the growth and development of its modern art.

    The 18th century French painter Delacroix said that "art is not an accurate, faithful portrayal of nature, but is the artist's own fusion of the various elements he has discovered in nature." In the following century, the American artist Whistler noted, "Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful -as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony." In his "Aesthetics," the German philosopher Hegel also pointed out, with respect to the painters of the 17th century Dutch School, how they attended to all the details of scenes from daily life, communicating the zeal and romanticism of the Dutch people toward their daily experience. And of course, one figure that can hardly be overlooked when discussing the romantic spirit in the art of recent eras is Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Klimt, the creator of works embodying the dazzling obsessions of the 19th-cedntury Viennese with eroticism, psychoanalysis, and aesthetics, was the heart and soul of symbolism and romanticism in the art in his time; his work resounded with the intensely human instincts for sex, love, death, and rebirth.

    This trend toward employing elements of daily life to present multi-faceted, personal truths was strongly evinced in both art and literature, and was highly representative of the spirit of the times. The work of Liao Jichun displays, at its most basic level, elements that represent a modern Chinese zeitgeist as well as a romantic, personal pursuit of beauty and nature. In Garden, concise but complex lines segment a composition that is like, and yet unlike, what it portrays; it hovers between realness and solidity and something more illusory in a way that expresses to the full the living beauty of the setting. Liao's modes of expression illustrates just how much he used his creations to convey a deeper concern for life as well as the warm humanity of the eastern cultures.

    Muscial Beauty and the Art of the Line

    In the course of Chinese history, an intriguing relationship developed between its art and its literature, as painting began to give concrete voice to certain ineffable and abstract aspects of the literary experience. This joining of the two was built on the special place of ink in Chinese painting, and as such was one of the more uniquely Chinese developments in the history of world art, one that led to its special aesthetic outlook and achievements. For the literati painters of ancient China, the beauty of painting lay not merely in portrayals of nature, but at the same time in the expressive aspects of the lines themselves. Brush and ink were capable of expressing a beauty of their own, independent from the objects they depicted. It was a formal, structural beauty that was capable of conveying all manner of subjective and emotional elements with its own excitement and lively atmosphere. The twists and turns of line and the density and placement of color created power, psychological implication, energy, and a suggestion of time and place. Together they resulted in an important and accomplished conception of beauty.

    The development of line in Chinese art was also closely linked to the written Chinese language, which was developed to maturity during the bronze age. To produce the Chinese characters which became their orthodox writing system, it was necessary to observe closely the various forms, images, and attitudes of things in the external world and to imitate and extract their essential features. This ultimately led to a great deal of flexibility, generalizing, and free abstraction in the production of both Chinese characters and of the lines of Chinese art. The beauty of Chinese calligraphy, founded as it is on the lines and structures that have evolved from pictographic elements, lies in the fine balance of straightness and curvature, of vertical and horizontal lines, and in the structural poise of the characters and their apt placement on the page.

    This may be why Chinese artists often grasp the expressiveness of line with a sureness rarely seen in the work of western artists. Their adamant attention to the beauty of line and their concern with a work's conception and implications has been in part responsible for the confidence of their work and its important place in the development of modern art around the world. In Liao Jichun's Garden, the partitioning lines that arc, meander, and float across the painting impart a flowing but stately feel, linking the elements of the blossoming, flourishing garden and adding their own rhythms to the musical, Chinese aesthetic of the work.

    Man's Relationship to Nature

    Change is based on the principle of the cosmos, and can explain the ways of heaven and earth. The sages look upward and examine the things of the heavens; they look downward, learning the ways of the earth, and understand thereby the reasons for light and darkness.

    -The Book of Changes (the 'Yi Jing')

    In traditional Chinese painting, the handling of perspective in fact followed the "look upward to examine!Klook downward to learn" attitude of the Book of Change. Through "looking upward" and "looking downward," the Chinese followed brightness and darkness, Ying and Ying, grasping the unfathomable changes of Ying and Yang and the changing dynamic of the universe. Chinese and western painters therefore display a far different logic in their handling of spatial perspective: The Chinese express space and make perspective apparent through "the reasons for light and darkness," through Yin and Yang, and in their tradition the reality of their subjects was presented from two or more perspectives. The result was a broad, spacious view, which was reflected also in their typical view of the cosmos and their explorations of society and nature. One of the most special talents of an artist was to find the "image" of the things in nature, and in the Book of Changes, the sages "established the images" and the "extreme numbers." These two terms provide a point of entry into Chinese aesthetics: the "images," which were both sensory (and mental, imaginative) images, were intuitive; the "extreme numbers" (six and nine-indicating Yin or Yang about to change to the opposite polarity) were rational and reasoned. "Images" were a summation of external phenomena; "extreme numbers" were an exploration into their inner workings. The interaction of the two completed the study of everything under the heavens.

    While the Book of Changes contains no passages directly relating to painting and calligraphy, much of painting theory in later centuries did refer directly back to the key concepts in that work. The references of Ou-Yang Xiu of the Northern Song to the way "the paintings of old depicted idea, not form," and how painters should "grasp the essence and not the form" all originate from the Book of Changes. The early Qing classic by the painter Shi Tao, "A Discourse on Painting," is also intimately tied to notions of "change" through statements such as "the melding of the brush and ink" and "an all-pervading unity." The Chinese traditionally saw their deities as being present in nature, and man as an equal part of nature, and this ideal of a "union of man and the cosmos" has informed much of their art and culture. In his introduction to The Orchid Pavilion, Wang Xizhi wrote, "Looking up, we can see the vastness of the heavens, and looking down, we can observe the abundance of living things," surely also an illustration of these concepts.

    It could hardly be more fitting, given the nature of Liao Jichun's work, to link it to the Book of Changes and its ideas about the relationship of the Chinese people to nature. Liao had a strong interest in philosophy and religious thought, and it is easy to imagine how, as he created this Garden, he must have hoped to unite in that one work not only his insights into art, but his religious and philosophical beliefs as well. His art then was not just art for its own sake, but something which represented his personal experience of life and a realization of his philosophies.

    What is Light? -Religious Belief and Artistic Expression

    In the Middle Ages, God represented an all-powerful force, benevolent love, and the highest beauty. All of nature's beauty was held in his gaze, and originated from God himself. Through its appreciation of this beauty, humankind could appreciate and come closer to an understanding of God. Light itself was interpreted as God-given, a glorious marvel, and its symbolic meanings also held great aesthetic significance in this tradition.

    A long historical tradition lies behind these symbolic aspects of light, beginning with the ancient pairing of light and darkness and their connection with the origins of life. Much of western art has been founded on inherited Greco-Roman aesthetic traditions, and in the Greco-Roman culture, the sun god Apollo, shining with golden radiance, was the incarnation of knowledge and wisdom. Steeped in mystical thought, that culture later stripped the personified elements away from light, which then became a pure and complete symbol that directly represented their mysticism. Light in the midst of the darkness of space became the most all-encompassing beauty, a radiant symbol of the ultimate marvel of existence.

    In Christian symbolism light became the original shape of the divine and took on special aesthetic significance. Gold was the worldly manifestation of this light, symbolizing the divine light with a purity that was never tarnished or corroded, just as the spirit retains its fundamental and ageless purity. Just as gold did, light through stained glass windows could also symbolize and give physicality to this essence of the divine. French art historian has commented on the symbolic use of artistic glass in cathedrals: "A cold and gloomy light fills the cathedral, but a blood-red light cast within it from the colored glass breaks into a shaft of gorgeous amethyst and jade, a mysterious flame glowing with a pearly light, as if in this strange illumination a window was opened toward heaven."

    In this belief system, Jesus was incarnated into the world of individual beings, expressing his power through a physical image. In the West, after the periods during which the greatest creative stained-glass designs were created, artists returned to abstract presentations of the physical order and energy of the world. One, the great modernist of the early 20th century, Paul Cezanne, produced oils that can be compared to eastern mandalas in the way they distill the elements of the physical world into their most basic forms, and through his eyes we see the complexity and disorder of the world reduced to its fundamental constituents of spheres, cones, and cylinders, in a pure expression of objective physical images and subjective mental perception.

    One of the most intriguing aspects of modern painting is its breaking down of the barriers of traditional spatial perspective, as artists seek to move beyond accurately defined spatial planes and to use the painting's surface to represent other kinds of visual spaces and inner personal depths. Liao's Garden perfectly exemplifies this attitude: his realizations about light take form on the canvas through the array of hues he distributes across the surface; the gem-like purity of the yellows, reds, blues and greens transforms and reshapes our awareness of light and nature and the holiness they embody.

    The work of another modernist, Mark Rothko, while not attempting to make special points about spatial perspective, nevertheless employs blocks of color to create illusory spaces, which are seemingly filled with the glow of sunlight or the shadowy cast of deep clouds. Rothko's blocks of color float weightlessly alongside each other, as if thought itself were floating freely through the spaces of the canvas; the intent of the artist was in fact to depart from traditional painting in favor of a complete immersion in the world of the soul and spirit. What we perceive visually in his canvases is geometric blocks of color, their edges softened and blended into each other, but what we otherwise feel and sense is their effusion of strong moods through subtle juxtapositions of contrasting colors. The opacity of Rothko's blank spaces is impenetrable; instead, they enfold and immerse the viewer in the individual worlds of color upon color within his paintings. Rothko's works-entirely individualistic and entirely incapable of explanation in concrete terms-challenge the tradition of systematic, concrete visual representations. The creative concepts embodied in this particular work by Liao Jichun, despite its basis in a specific "garden" subject, nevertheless present intriguing parallels with those of Rothko.

    Rothko did not consider himself an abstract artist; he was interested only in emotional communication. As he said, "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else...I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions-tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on!K." Believing that the inner experience of modern people had never really departed from age-old traditions sustained up to the present, Rothko hoped to find the basis of a western culture of today somewhere within its older traditions; to deal with basic emotional issues, he believed it was necessary to return to the deepest roots of western culture in ancient Greece, in particular the Greek sense of tragedy. From Greek tragedy he absorbed the notion of the individual in opposition to nature and in conflict with society. These conflicts, for Rothko, represented a fundamental human state, and could be used to elicit warmth, fear, and tragedy, and to search for mystery and eternity. His intent was nothing less than to transcend all rationality and sense perception and to seek the ultimate in human philosophy-a starkly direct yet sacred sense of emotion and religiosity.

    Such a sense of deeply held devotional belief is likewise revealed in the abstract works of Liao Jichun. For Christian believers, taking communion is the expression of a far-reaching abstract idea, in which partaking of wine and bread allows them to draw closer to Christ, and the moment of communion becomes an expression of eternity, of the spirit of Christ dwelling eternally in the heart of the believer. In the body of Christ they find the ultimate reality, the truth and the grace of God. Through Christ, they move from a self-centered world and into a community of peace and happiness. In just the same way, at certain times and moments, so do art and religion each move closer toward a union with the other.

    Against the background of these ideas, it seems that the birth of a great artist is dependent on the artist's experience, the ability for incisive observation of the world, and the gift for creative transformation of their experience into the language of art. Throughout the course of Liao Jichun's life and creative work, his interest and his passions focused on three subjects-art, religious belief, and philosophy-and through his work, we are again brought into contact with them, as revealed through the fervor and constancy of the Chinese heart.

    Liao Jichun Artistic Influences and Achievements in Garden

    Liao Jichun's early years of study in Japan taught him basic concepts and techniques, and encouraged his study of strict realistic sketching techniques in combination with a bold use of color. Liao's personal style can be seen as based, therefore, on a solid sketching technique and penetrating powers of observation.

    Around the 1960s, Liao's style underwent significant change. Blocks of color, more solid and even than before, begin to occupy greater space on the canvas, and in an echo of Chinese painting, blacks and whites add their rhythms to the paintings. Not, as in western painting, to create light and shadow, but instead for their ability to suggest solid forms and empty spaces as they do the Chinese painting tradition. We also find Liao exhibiting a more developed eastern vantage point and beginning to express elements of China's humanist outlook. The concern of Chinese painting to present not just realistic images, but a philosophical stance emphasizing the conception and the atmosphere of a work, appears most strongly in Liao's works of the late 1960s and '70s, which exhibit strong abstracting tendencies, pure and simple colors, and a wonderfully elegant feel.

    The phases of Liao's evolving painting style can be traced in a series of works created after his return from Europe and the US in 1962. Prior to that year, Liao had already begun to indulge in personal, subjective color experiments that resulted in more evocative depictions, an approach exemplified in his numerous paintings of the scenery of southern Taiwan. After 1962, Liao achieved a wonderful balance through combining his subjective use of color with ever more abstract structures, and during the eight short years between 1962 and 1970, his creative work exhibited a thorough synthesis of eastern and western thought, with deeply felt and personal imagery. One Garden, from 1962 (see insert 1), can be said to represent an early venture into the world of abstraction. But strictly speaking, Liao's Garden series should be seen as having reached a creative peak during the 1968-70 period: whether in terms of originality of conception or sheer visual beauty, or of their historical value in the development of modern Chinese art, these works represent a true summit of Liao Jichun's creative career. In them Liao gave expression to an idealized vision of a world where form and color and abstract and representational styles meld in a perfect harmony.

    A large volume of available catalogs and publications, whether from museums or the popular press, have been dedicated to the analysis and appreciation of Liao Jichun's creative work. From them we learn that the works Liao created during the 1968-70 period on the "garden" theme account for barely one percent of the rich creative output of this artist's life. Further, less than 10 truly large-scale oils belong to this "garden" series, and half of that number now reside in the permanent collections of the museums known for their Liao Jichun collections, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. This Garden, from 1970, unquestionably stands among the most classic and highly representative works produced by Liao Jichun during this period. It was also included in the catalogs of major Liao Jichun exhibitions in 1981, 1992, and 1996, and is one of the most exciting and unrivaled creations of this artist's long and distinguished career.


    Private Collection, Asia


    Guo Tai Cultural Publishing Co., Liao Chi-Ch'un Oil Paintings, Taipei, Taiwan, 1981, p. 107. (illustrated)
    Artist Publishing Co., Taiwan Fine Arts Series 4: Liao Chi-Ch'un, Taipei, Taiwan, 1992, plate 85.
    Guangxi Art Publishing Co., China!D Art in the Twentieth Century, Edited by Society of Chinese Oil Paintings, Guangxi, China, June, 2000.