Experiencing a space
Yan Wenliang, a key figure in China’s first generation oil painters, was also an exponent of art education in modern China. In 1922, Yan cofounded the Suzhou Art School, the first of its kind in modern China officially titled by the government. Together with Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian and Liu Haisu, they were known as the ‘Four Presidents’ of the earliest and most influential art institutions in China, each playing a crucial role in advocating and practicing contemporary art from its initial stages in China.
Classical Realism and Impressionism are the foundation of Yan’s art. Between 1928 and 1930 when Yan Wenliang studied in Europe, in addition to learning the Classical Realistic oil paintings of 16th century Europe, which he had already acquainted in China, Yan began to find his interest in colours and light in the Impressionism.
Spaces are experienced by the mood transmitted within. Landscape is a favored genre by Yan. Though individual elements are important to him, it is the collective ambience of the entire space that gives a profound essence to his works. He likes to portray the beauty found in nature and historical sites. It is the ever-changing nature and the rich stories entrenched in architecture that gifted Yan with endless inspirations.
When talking about landscapes, Yan commented,
“first and foremost, emotion. Landscapes without emotion are deprived of aura. The emotion embedded in the landscape beckons the same in the viewers, that is, ushers resonance. Next, beauty. Landscapes are to be beautiful, to be mesmerizing, so that viewers are led the way in getting into the landscape with the artist. Finally, it is most desirable for landscapes to be elating, enveloped in an euphoric, buoyant, proactive and uplifting feelings.”
Seventeen-Arch Bridge in Beijing (Lot 402) and Night Moon (Lot 403) were two works created in the 1950s. They each captured a special sentiment of the artist as he was experiencing the landscape, thoroughly exemplifying his artistic pursuits.
These two works came from the family collection of an American Chinese collector, who first acquired them in the 1950s and since then never parted with them and passed them on to the family. They have remained in the same family collection for almost 60 years.
“Reality comes before beauty”;
“Creativity is possible if and only if one is lavishly equipped with the skills of sketching and oil painting”.
“scenes and objects in the painting must be in close and strong association, they cannot be floating or dislocated, nor should it be empty and rootless.”
“ought to look on the small as the large, which is scrupulosity; and vice versa, which is integrality.”
In Seventeen-Arch Bridge in Beijing, Yan chose not to depict the varying stone lions on the bridge in detail. But rather, by taking a step back, he included the verdant landscape around. Yan meticulously painted the lush trees and their reflection that tinted the Kunming Lake green, presenting the Summer Palace in its spring and summer time glory. The Seventeen-Arch Bridge is a fine example of traditional architectural wisdom. It was built in Qianlong period (1736-1795) in the Qing dynasty and it is the largest stone bridge in the Summer Palace.
Yan set out his exhaustive, methodical inquisition into the language of oils as represented by color, composition, dexterity, light and shadow, prescriptive, and materials.
His refined technics and exquisite composition became the keystone of his works. Different elements in the landscape are intricately connected. From the east shore of Kunming Lake sweeping across to the Nanhu Island, viewers are guided through the entire canvas. Yan skillfully captured the versatility of natural light, rendering the penetrating light through clouds with flecks of white paint. Not only does it bring along the serene beauty in nature, it also embodies an unmistakable Chinese aesthetic and cultural significance.
Night Moon demonstrates how Yan expresses his sentiments with light. He took a step further from the Impressionists who freed landscape from mere narration by giving emphasis to the use of color and brushstrokes. The moonlight gently touches upon the lake from high above, forming lyricality with flickers of the other shore. It exudes an effortless charm much akin to the poetic canvases of the 19th Century British painter John Atkinson Grimshaw (Fig. 1). The present work is carefully composed from near to afar, with a clear and ordered structure. On the foreground, the single tree on the left reaches high to the moon, whose reflection brings us to the mountain ranges across the lake. Viewers are then guided to look from the left to the tower on hilltop, passing by the small boat on the lake and landed back on the foreground, evoking past memories and in search of the peaceful sanctuary deep in their heart.