Yun Gee: Embracing avant-garde art
"In San Franciso, in the 20's the scene was not Haight-Ashbury or North Beach. It was Telegraph Hill and the lower reaches of Montgomery Street, a block from Chinatown. There I met Yun Gee. He had a square-headed intensity, was hell-bent to revolutionize Chinatown and the world with modern art and, as this exhibition shows, he knew what it was and how to do it."
John Ferren, "Yun Gee," Yun Gee (New York: Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, 1968)
At the age of 15, Yun Gee (full name romanized as "Zhu Yuanzhi") left his familiar environs behind and immigrated to San Francisco to live with his father. The recollection of young Yun Gee by his friend John Ferren makes clear the huge aspirations of this Chinese-American artist: to establish his own artistic identity within the fast-changing US art scene; to brave the tide of anti-Chinese sentiment and use avant-garde art to reverse the white Americans' prejudice against Chinatown as backwards; and further, to use pure art to establish an equal dialogue between Chinese and Americans and the people of the world. Studying Yun Gee's career, therefore, is to discover how modern American art was promoted during the 1920s and '30s by a remarkable Chinese artist. Yun Gee created a highly distinctive style by incorporating the philosophical thought, emotional responses, and traditional art and culture of China into his avant-garde western art.
Yun Gee's second wife, Helen Gee, remembered him as someone with "an insatiable curiosity and astonishing intelligence" whose bookshelves held works from a variety of fields: the Confucian Analects, Freud, the Bible. Yun Gee drew his artistic subjects from a similarly broad spectrum: the changing face of the city, small-town scenes, cheerful park vistas, portraits, and representations of Confucius and Jesus. Yun Gee began studies at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in 1925, instantly absorbing styles that were then at the very forefront of the avant-garde, beginning with Cubism and proceeding through Synchromism, French realism, Surrealism, and Futurism. His studies continued under Otis Oldfield, and already deeply fascinated with color, he found a special interest in the Cubist and Synchromist theories then popular in San Francisco.
One influence that can be clearly seen in Yun Gee's paintings from the '20s is that of the American Synchromist painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941). Delaunay derived from Cubism a style he called "Orphism," which emphasized the simultaneous effects of light, color, and movement, using the colors of the spectrum in paintings where the artist approaches nearly pure hues and colors. The exploratory phase Yun Gee was undergoing at this time was in fact representative of a third major phase in the handling of color in Western art. The first began with the awareness, during the Renaissance period, of the rich contrasts that light produces between bright and dark tones, and progressed to the work of the Impressionist painters, who studied shifts in color under natural conditions, and more importantly, through their attempts to capture changing light and colors, produced exceptionally dynamic colors and forms. Figures such as Delaunay and Yun Gee in the modern period completed the transition, using colors of their own imagination to present temporal and spatial elements, which, together with their compositional approach, conveyed a sense of their subjects in rhythmic motion within an abstract visual space.
In 1927, under the patronage of the Prince and Princess Achille Murat, Yun Gee moved to Paris to further develop his artistic career and "the goal of fusing Eastern and Western cultures." In Paris, Yun Gee again eagerly explored the expressive modes of various artistic schools, which produced a further change in style and the basic elements he chose to work with. His artistic vocabulary shifted away from the rhythmic motion of highly contrasting sets of basic spectrum colors and toward a reliance on pure line abstraction. For that reason the artist himself labeled his Paris period as his "lyrical period," a period in which his work was permeated with greater attention to personal feeling, cultural roots, and conceptual approaches. Color and composition were now placed at the service of theme and conception, rather than merely resulting from spectroscopic analysis or scientific observation of his subjects, and an unobstructed new lyricism and a sense of very personal musings on life can be felt in the works of this period, which also reflect an eastern cosmology in the relationships between people and things and between the outer environment and inner psychological focus.
Following his colorist explorations in San Francisco and his pursuit of philosophical and conceptual meaning during his time in Paris, Yun Gee in 1930 moved to New York, now with a distinctive and well-developed personal style, where he embarked on a new and brilliant period that set the tone for his subsequent work. Not long after his move, Yun Gee began work on a large-scale mural, The Last Supper (Lot 1015), commissioned as an altarpiece painting by St. Peter's Lutheran Church in the Bronx and sponsored by a student of Yun Gee's, Francis Freeman Burhop. Yun Gee produced three preliminary oil sketches prior to beginning the mural; studying these three oil sketches provides insights into Yun Gee's personal understanding of the New Testament scene depicted in the mural.
While Helen Gee's recollections do not indicate that Yun Gee possessed a full, devout belief in Christianity, he nevertheless engaged in continual study and exploration of the Bible. Even during his early San Francisco period, Yun Gee had produced a work on a Christian theme, My Conception of Christ (Fig. 1), in which a series of arcing bands in various colors create a rhythmic feel that is further reinforced by repetition of the image of Christ. The artist once noted his belief that Christ was not a frozen, unmoving figure, and his highly active rhythms in this painting serve to convey that viewpoint. Perhaps it was a sense of the prophetic, of the pointing toward the future, or the supra-real character of the religious subject that provided Zhu with the tremendous imaginative freedom he displays in this image. Those elements may have found a further echo in the artist's own pursuit of the ultra-avant-garde, with its intensely imaginative and surreal aspects, making this an especially inspired work.
Judas and Peter in the Eyes of Yun Gee
The triptych The Last Supper depicts three groups of subjects. While not all 12 of Christ's disciples are included, special attention is given to several among them, and the figure of Christ appears in each panel of the triptych. The New Testament, in Matthew, Chapter 26, recounts that this was to be the last Passover Christ would share with his disciples prior to the crucifixion, and that during the meal he prophesied that one of his disciples would betray him. The disciples were filled with consternation, and each of them in turn asked, "Lord, is it I?" When Judas asked, "Lord, is it I," Jesus said, "As thou hast said." In the far right panel of the triptych, the younger figure on the right, resting his beardless chin on his left hand and holding a moneybag in his right, is Judas. The moneybag contains the thirty pieces of silver with which the high priests had bribed him into betraying Jesus; Judas on the one hand seeks to conceal the moneybag behind his body, while apparently listening with calm unconcern to the reproaches of Philip and Matthew. Peter, to the right of Judas, holds a goblet and fixes his gaze on Judas the betrayer.
During the last supper, Jesus took wine as a symbol of the blood he would spill on the cross for the sins of mankind: "Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you.'" Peter holds "the bitter cup" tightly, expressing his loyalty and obedience to Christ's command. But the far right-hand panel, Yun Gee creates an interesting separate segment in the lower left, depicting another aspect of the prophecy of the betrayal of the Son of Man. Jesus moves to the side of Peter, places his hand in friendship on his shoulder, and says, "In all truth I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." Peter replies that, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I will not," and "even if I have to die with you, I will not disown you." Each of the events that Jesus prophesied during the last summer later came to pass. The last part of Matthew 26 describes how after Christ is taken away, Peter does indeed declare three times that he does not know him; Peter, later remembering that Christ had said, "before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times," then weeps bitterly. Yun Gee's depiction of Peter is strikingly different from that in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. In the da Vinci painting, Peter holds a knife (Fig. 2), possibly referring to a detail of the New Testament account in which Peter, after Christ is taken away, "drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest's servant." In da Vinci's work, Peter seems filled with righteous anger; Yun Gee, however, portrays him with the weakness of a man who, out of fear, loses his grip on belief.
Jesus and Thomas
The middle panel of the triptych shows Thomas the doubter holding his face in his hands, mired in a feeling of hopelessness. Jesus, on the right, raises his right hand, his left hand across his breast, and fixes his eyes on Thomas with a look of gentle, loving encouragement. This panel also has a separate scene framed in the lower right, showing Jesus after the resurrection. Thomas was absent when Christ first appeared to his disciples after his crucifixion and he doubted the actual fact of Christ's resurrection. The Gospel of John, chapter 20, tells how Christ appeared a second time especially for the sake of Thomas the doubter, and said to him, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; put out your hand, and place it in my side, and doubt not, but believe in me." In the scene shown by Yun Gee, Christ's pose with his left hand upraised and his right hand across his breast portrays Christ showing Thomas the marks and the wounds that were left by the nails from the cross. Yun Gee skillfully portrays earlier and later events within the same panel, using repeated images of Christ to present him both before the crucifixion and after the resurrection. Peter sits with both hands on the table, again wearing the same expression as in the far right panel when his eyes were fixed on Jesus. While Yun Gee does not show Peter interacting with Christ in this oil sketch, the fact the Peter maintains the same expression is an indication that Christ is interacting separately with Peter and Thomas in the same time and place. This again demonstrates Yun Gee's personal understanding that Christ is not a fixed, unmoving image but someone who approaches mankind and lives within the heart of each believer.
John and James
The far left panel of the triptych shows Jesus raising his right hand and blessing his disciples. At Christ's shoulder is John, and at his other side is James, brother of John. Mark, Chapter 10 recounts how James and John boldly requested of Christ, "Grant unto us that we may sit, one on your right hand, and the other on your left hand, in your glory." John raises a full cup of wine and James holds bread, which symbolize the blood and the body of Christ, marking the moment when, in response to their request, Christ says, "Can you drink of the cup that I drink of? Can you be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" John and James reply to Him, "We can." John and James, full of faith, made this request of Christ, and though Christ prophesied that the disciples would betray him, at that moment their personal belief and their love of Christ remained unshaken. Bartholomew, however, standing behind, is shown in sharp contrast to the disciples John and James standing beside Christ. His hands are upraised in a gesture of innocence and his eyes reveal cowardice, as if he has already lost confidence in his decision to follow Christ.
The three panels of the triptych The Last Supper feature backgrounds filled with tiny, geometric blocks of color that suggest the three-dimensional, multi-faceted appearance of diamonds. The use of these shapes derives from the theory of "Diamondism" that was created by Yun Gee (Fig. 3). Diamondism was a complex theory, attempting to explain artistic creation from the point of view of its rational, physical, and psychological elements, and Yun Gee brought a uniquely Chinese patience and meticulousness to the study of this subject. He believed artistic creation emerged from the interaction of three major categories of phenomena that included nine sub-categories. The first category was physical phenomena, including color, shape, and light; the second was psychological effects, including mood, desire, and observation; the third was centered in the brain, and involved our sense of time, morality (or philosophy or politics), and goals. Zhu believed that Diamondism could convey much information about the subjects being portrayed, including revealing the basic physical and psychological aspects of life.
Yun Gee's The Last Supper is indeed a vehicle for the artist's exploration of all the concepts and processes that made up Diamondism. During its creation, Yun Gee thought deeply about the meaning of the event he portrayed, pouring his energy into reading the Bible and analyzing the psychological traits of each of the 12 disciples in order to understand the moods and desires each might have experienced at the time. This helped create his telling portrayal of the relationship of John and Jesus as based in genuine love, and therefore the fearless security with which John makes his request. He successfully capture's Judas' cunning and deceit, Thomas' doubt, Peter's weakness, and Bartholomew's lack of faith. Once the psychologies of these figures were set, Yun Gee carefully planned the layout and composition of the work; with rich, bright color and skillful exaggeration, he incisively depicts deeper meanings behind the physical images as well as a uniquely personal point of view. Here Yun Gee departs from the brilliant, sharply contrasting colors of his San Francisco period and presents more harmonious visual effects, signaling a return to the naturally fresh, pure, and rich colors associated with traditional Chinese ceramic work. But he also applies expressive techniques of the avant-garde, breaking his images into geometric shards of color that, along with the distorted, exaggerated outlines of the human figures and the arching shapes of his composition, create an abstract and dreamlike presentation. Through the imagery of this painting, its religious subject heavily laden with the weight of prophecy, Yun Gee conveys to viewers deep inner feelings and ideas about basic human spirituality.
Yun Gee's The Last Supper received showings in the 1933 Spring Salon exhibition held by Americans for Art, and in Lausane, Switzerland, and Paris. Yet Yun Gee's Last Supper mural (Fig. 4) and this Last Supper triptych were dismissed at the time as being "too modern." Perhaps the artist's unique point of view and his depiction of Peter's denial of Christ made their acceptance by St. Peter's Lutheran Church difficult. The fate of Yun Gee's The Last Supper, unfortunately, parallels his own experience in the US, where he was often met by misunderstanding in society and failed to receive objective critical appraisals. Today, however, Yun Gee's The Last Supper triptych provides an important point of reference for the study of this Chinese-American artist and his creative outlook. If we review the course of modern Chinese painting, we see that it fundamentally followed two main paths during the 20th century: first, the development of a modern, abstract Chinese style, in which the tradition of the Chinese scholar-painters was fused with the colors and techniques of Fauves and abstract expressionists of the West, and second, a Chinese realist school that sought to extend many aspects of Western classical realism. An artist such as Yun Gee, however, whose powerful personal identity was expressed through geometrically shaped imagery with elements of Synchromism, Futurism, and Surrealism, was a radical figure even among the group of Chinese artists following the modernist path. As one of the few Chinese artists of the time to delve so deeply into the avant-garde, Yun Gee created truly new kinds of visual experience and was an important figure who made invaluable contributions to modern Chinese art.