Details
WANG YIDONG
(Chinese, B. 1955)
Lucky Day
signed 'Wang Yidong'; signed in Chinese; dated '1996' (lower right)
oil on canvas
150 x 100 cm. (59 1/16 x 39 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1996
Provenance
Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong, China
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004
Literature
Schoeni Art Gallery Ltd., Wang Yi Dong, Hong Kong, China, 1999 (illustrated, p. 119 & 180).

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Lot Essay

Lucky Day (Lot 36) shows a full body portrait of a young woman seated gracefully on a sofa, covered with Chinese red peony cotton fabric. She modestly gathers her legs to the left, and lifts one hand to her neatly combed jet-black hair, the other gently resting in her lap and delicately holding a flower. She perfectly embodies the ideal of reserved femininity. The composition pushes the shyly gazing model to a frontal position, standing out in sharp contrast from the darkly-shaded background, where only one red garland and the edge of a curtain catch a glimpse of light. This immaculate arrangement suggests a becalmed atmosphere, while also underlining a solemn rite of passage.

The viewer will immediately register elements of celebration such as the vivid red colour and peonies, both symbolic of good fortune and joy, as well as the garland framing the scene. The title, Lucky Day, refers to the famous Wedding series, a portrayal of the traditional ceremonial, which Wang Yidong first developed in the early 1990s. Here, the artist eschews an overt depiction of the event, choosing rather to focus on the feminine preparation, highlighting the pure beauty of youth and innocence in the rehabilitation of the rural traditional wedding as an essential expression of Chinese identity.

In the style of the Early Flemish artist Van Eyck and his most famous follower, Petrus Christus, the artist carefully layers thin and smooth oil paints to intensify the luminosity of the colours, and creates subtle gradations in light and shade to emphasise the realism of the setting, and the illusion of sensation. Overcoming the limits of visual art, Wang skillfully renders the rigidity of the well-ironed red cotton wedding attire and the smooth feeling of the immaculate young skin. Despite being vastly separated by time and geography, Van Eyck and Wang Yidong are both praised, in their respective periods, for their extraordinary construction of illusion based on a thorough observation of reality. Thus, the following description of Van Eyck's painting also applies perfectly to Wang's art: 'His observation is sensual, born of joyous amazement, all-embracing and never satisfied. He knows fabrics like the weaver, from whose loom they have flowed, building like an architect, the earth like a geographer, plants like a botanist.' (M. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting - The van Eycks - Petrus Christus, New York, USA, 1967, p. 77) Five centuries earlier, Petrus Christus offers a similarly magnificent portrait of a youthful shy woman.

Through this practice, both artists show the conviction that the future of the painting medium lies in the handling of realism to perfection, thus creating harmonious and painstakingly choreographed images. In an interview with Xiao Bai, Wang Yidong explains that his 'learning process in painting has been influenced by the great Western painters such as Van Eyck, Rembrandt and Holbein, whose work [he] had the chance to study when in the USA'. Furthermore, he states that he is 'keen to find and assimilate a new visual language from traditional Chinese art with works in oil, so that they may possess a romantic oriental character'. (Interview with Xiao Bai, Dialogue in Winter, exhibition catalogue, Schoeni Art Gallery, 1999, p. 23) Wang applies the classical European concept of the portrait genre, instilling symbols and signs of the person's interiority in a carefully composed setting. In line with the ideology of 15th century Northern Europe painting, Wang Yidong lifted the creative language and mastery of oil painting in China to a whole new level.

Interestingly, we find in Gerhard Richter's figurative photography-based paintings the same passion to depict female subjects in a soothing intimacy. The comparison is further relevant in that both share the experience of having developed artistically under an oppressive communist regime, which viewed art as a stylistically rigid but powerful tool for propagandist communication. Deeply affected by his escape to West Germany in 1961, Gerhard Richter began painting figurative portraits of his family members as a way to contend with the pain of loneliness. Both intimate and highly political, his figurative body of work meets Wang Yidong's compositions in their goal to create a new national identity. Rather than rejecting the governmental artistic realism, both approaches consist of a brilliant re-appropriation of this connoted style, but craftily repurposed.

Infusing Chinese symbols and memories of his own childhood countryside into Lucky Day, Wang Yidong praises the idealism of a simple rural life as a way to reconcile this new political era with the roots of Chinese identity. Similarly dealing with national identification, Gerhard Richter uses figurative painting as therapy in an attempt to exhume his country's troubled history and ease the related culpability. For both painters, art acts as a mean to recover their own history and build a better future. Wang Zhao Jun acknowledges this ambition: "Wang Yidong's painting style is very Chinese. He has a pure and clean approach: strong and powerful colours: deep and profound connotations and yet simple, unsophisticated sentiment." (Wang Zhao Jun, The style of Wang Yidong, exhibition catalogue, Schoeni Art Gallery, 1999, p. 9) Gerhard Richter's female portraits and Wang Yidong's wedding series unite in the same need to depict beauty, as a way of escaping reality, and a sign of hope for a better world.

Beyond his political intentions, Wang displays a dazzling reinterpretation of realist painting in a contemporary time dominated by the photographic medium. In creating thoroughly constructed compositions with multiple layers of meaning, the artist reveals ultimate technical control and offers a deeply personal and sensitive imagery, overcoming the rivalry with photography, a medium limited to reality. The work seems to breathe on its own in a very efficient and driven narrative which leaves no room for spontaneity. Using all pictorial elements to the fullest - composition, body language of the model and symbolic patterns and colours - Wang became the great visual storyteller of contemporary China.
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