Impressionism, the origin of Western modern art, was brought to China through two distinct routes: Japan and Russia. There were artists who studied in Japan, like Chen Chengpo, Liao Chichun and Hu Shanyu; and there were those who studied in Russia, and returned with their artistic endeavor to integrate Western art into Chinese contexts, bringing about new modernist experiments still deeply-rooted in Eastern aesthetics and philosophy. Sun Yuntai was a leader among the latter group. Belonging to the second generation of Chinese oil painters, in the 1930s, Sun was an apprentice at the studio of Lobanov, an eminent Belarusian court painter. In this early period of exchange, a number of historic exhibitions were held from the 1930s and into the 1950s in Moscow and Japan.
Four archetypal works of Sun Yuntai, painted in the 1980s to 1990s, are highlighted here in our autumn sale, each manifesting the artist's unique style in depicting color and evocative scenery. Open Country (Lot 1336) and Lake Landscape (Lot 1337) embody a mode of composition typical of the artist. With the scattering banks of clouds hanging over the terrain, the canvas is horizontally divided into a distant sky and a vast field. It establishes a spatial arrangement in which the sense of tranquility and stability are preserved without being too systematic as one-point perspective compositions would produced. The binary structure of the canvas leads the viewers to follow the undulating mountain range, while also being drawn into the bright, wide green field in the foreground. Drawing influences from the Impressionists, especially of Vincent Van Gogh, Sun Yuntai focused on the use and manipulation of light and color to depict the ever-changing quality of nature under specific light conditions. By rendering the changing shifts of light with expressive brushwork, Sun depicts nature in its most brilliant and impressive form. Foliage in Sun's paintings is rendered with a rich, dense network of overlapping, short brushstrokes of thick oil paints; the forms of nature are further delineated with fluid, black lines that enliven the subject of the vitality of nature during the summertime, a joie de vivre.
Sun's Hometown of Colorful Clouds (Lot 1339) is a vibrant combination of shades of saffron, emerald green and scarlet. The sky is depicted with a remarkably refined use of colors: under the milky layer of white are the faint scatters of blues and reds, nebulous and whimsical, it exudes luminance evocative of the alluring afterglow over a wide field. The rosy, distant sky resonates with the red autumnal leaves of the foreground; they constitute a bewitching, almost romantic ambience.
High summer, golden autumn, the woods and the streams are Sun Yuntai's most favored scenes. The way the artist manipulates vibrant colors in depicting the lush foliage of the forest and the brimming wavelets of the stream is particularly revealing of his mastery in the medium. Summer and autumn are seasons of the most dramatic variations in lights, shadows and colors; Sun's landscape thus implicates the more profound philosophies of the tides of time and the order of seasonal changes. Beautiful Landscape (Lot 1338), a work on autumn done on a large canvas, portrays a meticulous rendering of the variations in color. The sturdy birches, set in rows on the left and right, extend themselves to the center of the canvas in quasi-one point perspectival composition; this preserves a sense of stability and repose in the composition. The trunks and leaves, on the other hand, are skillfully transformed into trestles of a stage, framing the field of greeneries in the foreground. The green turf, the canopy of red leaves, the distant azure sky and the bright white branches constitute a canvas abounded in layers of rich colors albeit its small size; overlaying each other, they bring forth a iridescent, multi-colored world of irresistible appeal, reflecting the candid character of the artist and his zeal for rhythmic representation.