As a young soldier on the move through the mountainous regions of China, Yu Chengyao often delighted himself with his fine poetical skills. After retirement from the armed forces, he made a living through an import-export business in the Fujian-Taiwan area. Later, retiring from the life of a businessman, he led a very quiet life in Taipei, reading, practicing calligraphy, and studying the nan-guan style of Chinese music that he loved. Then, in his fifty-sixth year, he decided to take up painting. With one slow, careful stroke after another, he began to paint the landscapes he saw in his inner vision and memory. Yu had no model or master to guide him; he progressed steadily with great individuality and patience, using a brushwork style of his own invention. Like Jin Nong, who only took up painting later in life, Yu Chengyao followed these principles: "Learn from nature; express your personality; develop your own method; paint your impressions; create clear images; guard your character; cultivate a broad outlook."
Brushwork has been a consistent focus of Chinese painting since ancient times. In the writings of Xie He, the "bone method" (for creating strokes with certain qualities) is listed as the second of the "six principles of painting," illustrating the emphasis brushwork received in earlier ages. As painting technique progressed to the time of the Yuan dynasty, the Chinese literati developed a concept in which poetry, painting, and calligraphy were united in a single work, bringing the use of line in painting into close alignment with calligraphy brush techniques. The painter Zhao Mengfu described the relationship between the two: "Rocks are painted with the 'flying stroke,' trees in the zhou script style of brushstroke; bamboo can be executed with the eight basic calligraphy strokes. To accomplish this, one must realize that painting and calligraphy are essentially the same." The effects of line had moved from depiction of objective forms to something that revealed subjective feeling and mood, and techniques such as the "axe-cut" stroke and the "branching deer horn" stroke were the common property of painting and calligraphy. While certain techniques were commonly available, a personal style could still be developed by painters who established an individual vocabulary. Yu Chengyao commented on creativity in painting, saying, "People who study painting only learn from a teacher; they never learn directly from nature. So all they learn is the superficial use of brush and ink." Yu's statement reveals his feeling about formulaic approaches to style, while his concept of learning from nature can be traced directly to the landscape painting of the Northern Song dynasty of the Five Dynasties period. A landscape by Li Cheng (919-967), Buddhist Temple in the Mountains, seems to have been painted on site and captures the feel of natural scenic elements, with a fine sense of the breadth and weight of the massive stone outcroppings. Such a work is a far cry from the empty, formulized painting of some of the later literati painters. Yu Chengyao's mountain ranges, likewise, possess these simple and weighty blocks, but they are reordered to match the landscapes of his imaginative vision in a way that is even reminiscent of the Cubists and their multiple viewpoints, where simple points and lines give rise to stable geometric forms, re-creating the painting's subject in the relative heights, distances, and depths of the layers on canvas.
In his youth Yu Chengyao traveled all along the Yangtze. Among the landscape paintings he created, few include notations of the actual scene being depicted, and even fewer include scenes to which he would return more than once. Clearly, he was very deeply impressed by scenes he saw at Huashan (Mt. Hua) and in the Three Gorges region. In 1945, when the war of resistance against Japanese forces ended, Yu boarded a boat at Chongqing to return east along the Yangtze, traveling through Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province and entering Anhui, then into the lower reaches of the Yangtze and on to Nanjing and even further to where the Yangtze enters the sea. Yu was amazed by the panoramic views he experienced on this great journey, and the verses he wrote leave us with a sense of his astonishment towards the Three Gorges region and give us a glimpse of his sadness for the journey's end in Nanjing:
In the Qu Tang Gorges:
Rushing water, huge waves whipped by the wind, what tragedies await in the spring floods?
Our light boat shoots through the chasm, and looking back, the water has risen above all previous traces.
Viewing the City of the White Emperor, as the boat drifts eastward:
Du Fu the poet has gone to Jiang Guan, spring lingers on at White Emperor Mountain.
I gaze endlessly at the clouds around these peaks, and whispering a poem, my mood is lighthearted as we leave the Gorges for the east.
Returning to Jin Ning:
Jin Ning still sends up thin spires of smoke, this place is ever desolate as old.
Who knows how long the Yangtze's silent water has flowed, who counts the years of youth gone by?
The visual power of the spectacular natural scenes and the frightening intensity of the roaring waters Yu encountered on this journey undoubtedly created an emotional impact, becoming the seed of later landscape paintings. Twenty years later, relying on a powerful memory and tremendous patience, Yu created two huge scrolls of more than ten meters each, his Endless Yangtze and Impressions of the Yangtze. Painted in 1973, Endless Yangtze no longer displays the steep, rugged mountains of Yu's earlier works; here, such landscapes are transformed into a more layered handling in which Yu lays out the vistas on each side of the Yangtze in staggered tiers with exceptional brushwork. The gradations of colors Yu employs, from light green and yellow-green to terre verte, deepen the contrasting light and dark areas as well as the sense of depth and dimension. Yu's Impressions of the Yangtze (Lot 561), created in 1984, displays a further maturing of Yu's capabilities some 10 years later. The more angular twists and turns of the river in the previous work are altered to impart greater flow to the compositional layout and a feeling of uninterrupted, tightly knit unity from beginning to end. Impressions of the Yangtze is also more richly detailed, with sharp and sensitive handling of the steep mountainous terrains and the river's shallower estuary, while still retaining the original sense of majestic masses of stone. The sky and far-off mountains show more varied effects of depth and distance, as the combination of dense masses and open spaces produces receding depths and atmospheric effects. The forms of the mountains have been modified and simplified; in Impressions of the Yangtze they tend toward more geometrical shaping and are colored in bolder shades. The traces of bright tones such as clear yellow, vermilion, and cobalt blue enhance this representation of the Yangtze River that flows through the broad expanses of 11 different provinces, adding real presence and immediacy.
The Yangtze is China's greatest river, and along with the Yellow River, was the cradle of Chinese civilization. Both have been the subject of poems and paintings by the great literary and artistic figures of the past. Among works on this theme by more modern painters and calligraphers, none is better known than Zhang Daqian's 1968 Impressions of the Yangtze, a composition showing the Yangtze from a high vantage point for an imposing sense of breadth and power. The picture surface seems drenched in fresh waters and lush greenery, and in a synthesis of his characteristic styles, Zhang uses splashes of ink, along with dripping, dampening, saturation, flowing paint, and pigments pressed dry onto the surface, to convey the feel of the Yangtze in its great winding course. Yu Chengyao's Impressions of the Yangtze similarly draws upon a wealth of techniques, but in a manner very different from Zhang Daqian's presentation of his impressions of the same river. Yu's depiction allows various points of entry into the painting, as viewers who follow the winding course of the river into and through the distance perceive the work as a series of separate segments. A key focus of the painting, however, remains the layering-a sense of the relative distances of surface features one perceives when immersed in a landscape, a sense possibly growing from Yu's experience with the terrain in his youth as an enlisted man and officer, which resulted in a different view of the earth's natural features than other artists might have. Yu's brushwork is not entirely derived from traditional techniques: short strokes and specks constitute the greater part, while the varying density of rows of brush dabs produces variations between bright and dark tones and provides the structure of the work.
Yu Chengyao's art derives from his vast personal experience, and reaches far beyond the re-creation of any existing scene. It applies the ancient concept of learning from nature, but employs modern concepts of presentation. In this landscape, Yu pours out his feelings about remembered journeys in a composition so perfectly realized that it invites viewers to enter it-to walk among the mountains, to roam, to gaze, to live within the world of the painting.