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signed 'Yun Gee' (lower right)
oil on canvas mounted on board
72.5 x 60 cm. (28 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1939
A gift from the artist in 1941 to Mrs. Ellen Berland, sister of Mrs. Helen Gee.
Anon. Sale, Christie's Taipei, 12 April 1998, Lot 11
Acquired at the above sale by the previous owner
Anon. Sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 27 May 2007, Lot 233
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Lin & Keng Gallery, Inc., Yun Gee, Taipei, Taiwan, 1998 (illustrated, p.59).

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Lot Essay

In 1921, at the age of 15, Yun Gee (Zhu Yuanzhi) leftGuangdong Province for San Francisco to reunite with his father, thus becoming part of the first generation of Chinese artists in the 20th century to pursue artistic studies abroad. During his time at the California School of Fine Arts, Yun Gee was introduced to the latest developments of modern art in Europe and was inspired in particular by Synchromism and Orphism. In these beginning experimental years Yun Gee employed bold and bright oil colour to depict intricate geometric patterns, manifesting a deep interest in colour and co-colourist theories. At the same time he explored inventive compositional strategies, introducing structural fragmentation into figurative objects and combining colour and structure into one artistic device. Yun Gee’s debut solo exhibition in San Francisco in 1926 was a resounding success, earning him in particular the admiration of Prince and Princess Muhart of France. In 1927, through the Prince and Princess’s encouragement, Yun Gee embarked on a journey to Paris where he quickly attained prominence. He held several solo exhibitions over the course of the ensuing three years, and his works, seen to embody an exotic Oriental view of the world, were well-received by Parisian audiences. During this Paris period, the first of two in the artist’s career, Yun Gee’s focus shifted from geometric structures to softer arcs and contours, while the bright ebullient hues of his San Francisco period deepened into a more somber chromatic palette.

In 1930, due to financial reasons, Yun Gee left Paris and returned to the United States – this time to New York, which offered an even richer artistic and culture atmosphere than San Francisco. In 1932, Yun Gee was invited by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to take part in the exhibition ‘Murals by American Painters and Photographers’ where his works received positive acclaim. Around this time Yun Gee also began to experiment with Diamondism, a style which he felt reflected the depicted subject’s material and spiritual essence. The infinite tiny triangles in the picture plane represent the infinite facets of the universe, while also encompassing the physics, psychology and logic inherent in Yun Gee’s creative process. While his work was celebrated in New York, Yun Gee struggled during the Depression and experienced strong racial discrimination, ultimately finding the city unbearable and returning to Paris in 1936. Yun Gee’s works once again received critical acclaim and he exhibited widely both in group shows and solo exhibitions. In 1939 he was shortlisted for Salon d’Ete in Paris; at this point in his career Yun Gee was full of new inspirations and aspirations and was eager to take significant strides in his artistic journey. However, in September of 1939 war broke out in Europe, forcing him to return to New York in October of the same year. The present lot Dancing Nudes (Lot 36) was created on the eve of Yun Gee’s departure from Paris.

When I visited the Louvre day after day, the masterpieces there spoke to me in a language that was neither French nor Chinese but which transcended time and place. Here was something universal which had meaning for every man regardless of race or state. A painting by Cezanne or Courbet became as close to me as any of the scrolls by the Chinese masters with which I was so familiar. And I realised that East and West were not so far apart, for in their finest creative effort, there was something very much akin. I settled down in Paris to achieve this aim.

- Yun Gee

Dancing Nudes is an extremely remarkable piece in terms of both composition and use of colour. Not unlike Cezanne, Yun Gee’s focus was not on the accurate representation of the depicted subject but on overall harmony and balance in composition and pictorial structure. The four nudes at the centre hold hands in an interlocked ‘8’ configuration, evoking a lively sense of cyclical, infinite movement. Their elongated torsos and limbs, as well as their interlinked arms, are reminiscent of twisting vines as well as the fluid brushwork of traditional Chinese ink paintings (fig. 1). Behind the dancing figures, the bending arches of the tree branches seem to come to life as well, further emphasising the movement and contours of the figures’ arms and bodies. Meanwhile, the blue sky, the main palette of green and yellow as well as the circle of dancing figures evoke Henri Matisse’s La Danse. However, unlike the strident passion and energy in Matisse’s work, Yun Gee’s painting embodies a dreamy poeticism unique to Chinese paintings, exuding a graceful lyricism and softly entrancing atmosphere.

While in Paris Yun Gee visited the Louvre frequently; evidently he was inspired not only by developments in modern art but also by the classics. The Three Graces is a motif that has been explored countless times by artists since ancient times: comprising the goddesses of charm, beauty and creativity, the Three Graces offer endless opportunity for artists to explore and depict the beauty of the female form (fig. 2). It is apparent, from the postures and configurations of the figures in Dancing Nudes , that Yun Gee was inspired by this classical motif. His reinterpretation involved not only an elongation of the torso but also a development of his unique Diamondism style. The lines of the figures’ interlinking arms, S-shaped bodies and crisscrossing limbs form a pattern of large and small triangles – a structure which awards cohesion, grounding and balance to the overall composition. While Western art emphasises mere harmony and balance, Yun Gee’s works combine Eastern lyricism with cohesive structural equilibrium, imbuing the classical tradition with fluid movement and unique expression.

Yun Gee was extremely fond of the present motif, creating multiple variations of the four nudes in the same year (fig. 3). The present lot is the richest and most accomplished in terms of composition and colour. Yun Gee must have been extremely satisfied with the work’s reinterpretation of the classical motif and its overall outcome. According to research, Yun Gee once expressed his satisfaction and pride over the present work in the context of discussing another painting, stating its significance as what is perhaps the most representative piece of his Paris period. Also noteworthy is the fact that he reprised the composition and motif of the present lot in another work executed in the same year, Nudes on Horseback (fig. 4). In Nudes on Horseback, the nudes’ arm and torso placements, even when combined with the added element of the horses, achieve the lyrical harmony and movement akin to that of Dancing Nudes . The same four figures can also be found in Seven Nudes in Central Park (fig. 5), which was executed after his move from Paris to the United States – evidence of the artist’s enduring affection for these four subjects.

Dancing Nudes fully embodies Yun Gee’s enormous artistic talent and shrewd skills of perception. During this period his aesthetic emphasis had completely shifted away from the geometric shapes that defined his earlier works, focusing instead on the subtle interactions between linear contours and compositional structure. Lines had become his core compositional device, which enabled him to achieve an extraordinary breakthrough in the medium. On the one hand, Yun Gee imbued the fluid lyricism of Chinese brushwork into Western oil painting, achieving a seamless amalgamation of East and West; on the other hand, his sophisticated use of lines subtly yet surely strengthened the rhythmic movement of the pictorial plane. Such developments were critical in the overall evolution of Yun Gee’s acclaimed career. His innovative conceptual explorations and skilled execution put him on par with contemporaneous artists from the School of Paris (fig. 6), at the same time carving out a wholly unique mode of expression. As one of the finest and most representative works of the artist’s career, Dancing Nudes stands testament to Yun Gee’s inimitable position in the history of modern art and his great importance in melding artistic ideas and philosophies from the East and West.

On the sketch of Nudes on Horseback, Yun Gee wrote, 'This painting finally succeeds to carry out what I want in the "The Knights" and is successful as the "Dancer's" during the day of declare war by England.'

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