(CHEN CHENGBO, Chinese, 1895-1947)
dated in Chinese (lower right)
oil on canvas
72 x 52.5 cm. (28 3/8 x 20 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1928
Private Collection, Asia
Art Center of Cheng-Shiu University, From Nationality to Land: Seminar on Cultural Reflection in Chen Cheng-po's Art, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, p. 13).

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

Lot Essay

When a medley of Chen Cheng-Po's still life and nude paintings are introduced to us for the first time - as with the 2011 exhibition Nostalgia in the Vast Universe: Commemorative Exhibition of Chen Cheng-Po and the 2012 Journey Through Jiangnan: A Pivotal Moment in Chen Cheng-Po's Artistic Quest, held respectively at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum - we can enjoy, at last, a full picture of the artist's creative enterprise, expanding upon and enriching what we already know about his landscapes. Shiotsuki Toho, the curator of the Taiwan exhibitions, commended that Chen is "assuredly practiced at sketching", a remark that fits with the few nudes he created. Chen entered the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (the former Tokyo University of the Arts) to study western paintings in 1927; in 1928 he moved around Taiwan, Japan and China, getting down to his productions and holding solo exhibitions. Those were the years when, little by little, he began to garner recognition and a reputation in the art world. The following year he started teaching in Shanghai at the invitation of Wang Jiyuan. This evening sale features Nude (Lot 2016), a work produced between the Tokyo and Shanghai periods of the artist, which is also the very first nude painting of Chen to appear at public auction. It exhibits his transformation of style in both coloring and spatial arrangement, and so epitomizes the way he breaks through the academic fence and breathes an idiosyncratic style into his work.

The instructors of the Tokyo Art School, including Kuroda Seiki, Kume Keiichiro, Fujishima Takeji, and Okada Saburosuke, were leading figures in early 20th-Century Japanese art. While plein air painting, a branch of Impressionism especially concerned with outdoor light and air, had been introduced into Japan, in other respects Japanese art was still largely under the sway of European schools of naturalism and realism. Nude, too, is fundamentally naturalistic and realistic, displaying a classicism in both palette and composition; that said, the formal elements Chen used are wholly original, reflective of his unwonted line of thoughts. A warm color tone is deployed to visualize the fleshiness and volume of the female body, while the shadow shades on her skin, the background and the seat cushion are deposited with a green tone. Supplementing each other, the juxtaposing green and red invoke stimulation to the eyes, but their brightness and chromaticity are so shrewdly manipulated that they never look discordant but all the more collaborative. The reddish oranges of the body and the floor give layers to the interior space, and the blend of pale green and brownish red creates a penetrating sense of latitude. Chen's preference of coloring as shown in the work is already loaded with a remarkable individual style; the use of brick red and green, in particular, will become his archetypes, most illustratable in his works of the 1930s like Spring at Mount Ali and Hill (Tamkang High School) .

Human figure study has been an important element in the basic training of artists ever since the Renaissance, and while the subject of the female nude is a common one in Western art, it nevertheless displays an artist's ability to observe in detail as well as control the overall composition. Matisse once observed, "What interests me most is neither still-life nor landscape, but the human figure. Through it I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life." In Nude the woman rests on the right of the canvas, her body slightly slanting towards the left, her gaze traveling to the bottom left. A straight, brownish red strip marks the left edge of the composition, creating a line of division with its darker and rigid tone. This vertical line also reveals the visual flow of this work, which moves round from the corner of the red strip to the woman's tiptoe, then to her leg, the curvature of her body, and back to the red strip. The work, moreover, parts with the formalized interior composition of spatial extension common to nude drawings: the background, primarily pastel green, should have projected a wall corner corresponded to the angle on the floor, beside which the chair stands. Such irrational perspective demonstrates how the artist arranges and represents space according to his own compositional motif rather than following the traditional, realistic reproduction of three-dimensional structure. The distortion and deformation of space also forecast his orientation towards cavalier perspective in reconstructing the spaces of his landscapes. Nude, therefore, exemplifies the way Chen Cheng-Po explores subjectivity and spirituality within the larger framework of realism by crossing the frontier of traditional painting, and hence testifies to his stylistic evolution over a course of artistic experiment.

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