LI KERAN (1907-1989)
DEPICTING THE NEW COUNTRY: FINE LI KERAN PAINTINGS FROM A DISTINGUISHED ASIAN COLLECTION (LOTS 1374-1379)In commemoration of the 70th year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Christie’s, in collaboration with a distinguished Asian collector, is presenting a series of rare works by Li Keran that were painted over three decades and are imbued with historical significance.The patriarch of the collector’s family was a child prodigy who studied and lived abroad in the US and Europe in his youth, specialising in international law and history. After his return to China in the late 1950s, he joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.As history and the arts have always been intertwined, the patriarch developed close friendships with many leading figures of the Chinese intelligentsia and painting masters of his time, including Li Keran, Fu Baoshi, and Huang Zhou. Numerous paintings within the collection were presented as gifts: from figure painting by Fu Baoshi as a wedding gift to the collector, to awe-inspiring monumental landscapes by Li Keran.At this historical moment, Christie’s is honoured to have the opportunity to present these works, which have been meticulously preserved for over half of a century. We hope collectors and art-lovers alike can view the new direction of Chinese painting since 1949 retrospectively through them.
LI KERAN (1907-1989)

Boy and Buffalo under Plum Blossoms

Details
LI KERAN (1907-1989)
Boy and Buffalo under Plum Blossoms
Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper
68 x 45.5 cm. (26 ¾ x 17 7/8 in.)
Entitled, inscribed and signed, with three seals of the artist
Dated November, 1979

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Lot Essay

On October 1st, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was founded. For the myriad of painters who had been revolutionising Chinese paintings since the turn of the century, it was the dawn of a new era. The new cultural policies had determined that “arts to serve the people.” “How to serve the people” and “how to describe reality” became the guidelines for the development of the new Chinese painting. Since 1954, artists of the guohua or national painting genre participated in many excursions, including overseas trips, where they painted from life (Fig. 1). Such activities broke away from the traditional practice of emulating old paintings. In the 1960s, as everything became increasingly politically charged, xinguohua or “New National Painting” pivoted toward depicting the prosperous and fulfilled lives of the people under the socialist regime, as well as the romantic imaginations of socialism. Sites related to the revolution and quotes from Chairman Mao Zedong were adopted as popular themes for landscapes.
As a leader of the New National Painting, Li Keran never ceased to explore new creative possibilities. Born in Xuzhou of Jiangsu province, he began painting at thirteen, copying landscapes by Wang Hui. He enrolled in the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 1929, studying under Lin Fengmian and focusing on oil painting. His early oeuvre was deeply influenced by Shitao, Bada Shanren, and the Four Wangs of the Qing dynasty.
After the establishment of a new China and the arrival of a new artistic philosophy, Li Keran decided to depart from tradition and “write biographies for my homeland’s mountain and streams.” Beginning in 1954, he journeyed near and far to paint from nature, leaving his footsteps in many provinces in the south and painting memorable landscapes (Fig. 2). In the 1960s, surrounded by a politically charged atmosphere, he adopted revolutionary romanticism and created works inspired by important sites and Chairman Mao’s quotes. Red Across Ten Thousand Peaks, Jinggang Mountain (Fig. 3), and Army Crossing the Yangtze River represent his insistence on creativity within such a space narrowly defined by politics. While the subjects of traditional figure paintings, such as lofty scholars, monks, beauties, and deities, were replaced by common laborers, farmers, and shepherds, his figures mostly display a sense of happiness, positivity, and insouciance (Fig. 4). Li Keran developed his distinctive style, employing his skills steeped in Chinese tradition and amalgamated with Western techniques. In this way, he set a milestone in Chinese landscape and figure painting.
The progression of the New National Painting after 1949 was a pivotal moment in the history of Chinese art, when Chinese painting was transformed from idealistic inner self-expression to social realism. The six important works by Li Keran presented by Christie’s span three decades, encompassing his rare traditional landscapes, pleasant cityscape, as well as monumental landscapes with themes of Chairman Mao’s quotes and famous sites from the 1960s. Together, they enable us to review Chinese paintings before and after the watershed moment of 1949. More importantly, they allow us to glimpse the new artistic direction taken by major modern painters under the new socialist order.

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