Modern art's development in China cannot be understood apart from the vagaries of its political environment during recent historical eras. During the 1920s, western classical realism and aesthetics were introduced into China by artists returning home from studying abroad, but the course of art history underwent another shift in 1942, when Mao Zedong delivered his historical, "Lecture at the Yenan Conference on Art and Literature". Later, in 1952, the Yenan faction, was the controlling force in guiding artistic thought in China, allied itself with Soviet views on art by extending an invitation through the Culture Bureau to Soviet artist Konstantin Mefodyevich Maximov to supervise oil painting instruction in China. With art as a tool for the propagation of political views, mainstream art focused strongly on ideologically oriented themes, and realism was primarily a means for depicting the reality of everyday life.
By 1978, China was entering a period of opening and reform, allowing its artists the freedom to explore much broader horizons. Presented with this wonderful opportunity, they embarked on nothing less than a re-examination of the 500-year history of realist painting in the West since the time of the Renaissance, a course radically different from China's sole focus on Soviet art in the '50s. New diversity was introduced and China's art schools gradually became centers for experimentation in modern art. Chinese art began to throw off the shackles of its blind imitation of Soviet art and to develop important new academic, cultural, and nationalistic directions. One young artist at the Bejing Central Academy of Fine Arts, Wang Yidong, engaged in exhaustive study and experimentation that led in a new direction, developing a highly individual style somewhere between tradition and the new wave, embodying both eastern and western aesthetics. Wang produced a neoclassical style, which, at the same time, can also be seen as reflecting a specifically Chinese cultural and metaphysical viewpoint.
Wang Yidong was born in Linyi County in Shandong, whose Yi-meng mountain region gave birth to China's Longshan culture in the late Neolithic period, where many ancient customs and traditions are still preserved. In the 1980s Wang began a series of paintings depicting the life and customs of Yimeng; early works in the series portrayed the physical laborers and local elders of the region, often in dark, subdued tones. In the 1990s, Wang took up a new subject, the wedding customs of the region which, along with Chinese New Year, is among the most joyous celebrations in the rural mountain villages. Village culture there is at heart a culture of the household and clan, since many villagers share common blood ties and ancestry. A marriage sanctifying the beginning of the bride and groom's lifelong relationship thus becomes a major event for the village as a whole. By employing a marriage ceremony as his motif, with its deeply traditional customs and its infectious atmosphere, Wang demonstrates a deep dedication to discovering the beauty in traditional culture. Simultaneously, he discovers new meaning in these age-old legacies, some handed down from the earliest Hua Xia and Han peoples, and helps give continuing life to these venerable and beautiful customs.
Traditional Chinese wedding rituals begin with something known as "the three letters and the six rites." The three letters are the engagement letter from the groom's family to the bride's, a list of gifts for the bride's family, and the letter welcoming the bride into the groom's family. The six rites, which had already taken form in the pre-Chin Dynasty period, are the six traditional procedures required for a wedding to take place: giving gifts (a proposal of marriage to the potential bride's family), requesting the bride's name and birth dates (her "eight characters"), betrothal (with a fortune teller to assure a good match), initial gifts for the bride's family, the setting of the wedding date (with formal gifts for the bride's family), and the wedding day, on which the groom picks up the bride. The complexity of the ceremonies reflects all the seriousness with which the event is viewed in traditional culture. Wang's The Wedding Morning (Lot 537) depicts a scene on "flower evening", sometimes also called "dressing with flowers," traditionally the day before the groom receives the bride, when her closest female relatives help to dress and adorn her for the great occasion in a solemn ritual taken very seriously during the wedding preparations.
To ensure that the happiness and celebration connected with this occasion would be vividly communicated, Wang made "China red" the principal color of his composition, a bold and original choice which does indeed project an auspicious and celebratory mood, while also evoking aspects of China's age-old history and culture. The red color is associated with another part of the great cultural heritage of the Chinese people, the porcelains that were invented in China. Porcelain ware is known in English as "China," as is the name of its country of its origin, while the term "Chinese red," or "China red," is linked with some of its most striking red porcelains. During the Yongle (1403-24) and Xuande (1426-35) periods, the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen produced porcelains with an exceptional red glaze, but because the red pigments tended to break down at high temperatures, firing these glazes was a difficult process. Nevertheless, no precious material was spared in the production of these precious red porcelains, whether coral, agate, jade, pearls, or gold, because they were usually intended only for the emperor's enjoyment, and today are rare and very valuable (fig. 1 and 2). Over the long span of history, the China red color has gradually instilled itself in the consciousness of the Chinese people and became a deeply-rooted symbol of their own nation and culture. China red stands for wellness, good fortune, happiness, luck, long life, honor, peace, unity, success, devotion, courage, prosperity, romance, warmth, sexuality, zeal, rich feeling, and tact. In The Wedding Morning, Wang also extends his central China red tonality and develops from it a deeper bordeaux, which he uses in the rosewood cabinet, and a natural ruby red for the clothing of the bride's female companion.
The new bride-to-be inevitably feels great excitement at this important crossroads of her life. As often as not she will be weeping on "flower day," and ancient custom has it, in fact, that after being adorned, the bride should keep a silent, night-long vigil, keening until the first light of day (called "the vigil until the fifth watch"). The bride's sleepless night is represented here in the artist's use of a brilliant black background that complements the traditional mood of sadness mingled with joy on this occasion.
Wang is rigorously demanding when it comes to his compositions and his modeling of human forms; he believes that "this rigorous shaping of forms is what communicates your personal feeling as an artist." The influence of Italian Renaissance painters from around the 14th century has done much to shape Wang's outlook: "The galleries of Italian Renaissance painters impressed me deeplyKwith a strongly decorative sense. Lines had deep feeling, and an intense beauty of color built up in the flat spaces." 1 In The Wedding Morning, we similarly see carefully planned lines and decorative elements, expressing the artist's feeling for the atmosphere of expectancy during preparations for the girl's wedding. The straight lines of the wardrobe and the trousseau box of the background set up a contrast with the curving lines that outline the two figures in the foreground. The arm of the woman working at the bride's hair is set in a deliberate horizontal, creating another kind of contrast that serves to highlight the reserved, tense erectness in the pose of the young bride at the center of the painting. In the patterned material of the clothing of the woman standing behind the bride, the artist uses a fine color wash borrowed from the traditional Chinese fine-brush (gong bi) painting technique, creating effects that allow it to serve in almost the same way as empty space and accentuating the presence of the patterned floral cloth on which the bride is seated.