The Mountains and Water Always Echo Our Love No. 1

The Mountains and Water Always Echo Our Love No. 1
signed and dated ‘DJY 2010 5’ (lower middle)
oil on canvas
179.5 x 249 cm. (70 5/8 x 98 in.)
Executed in 2010
Annely Juda Fine Art, London, UK
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Blue Kingfisher Limited, Hong Kong, Duan Jianyu: The Seduction of Village, 2011 (illustrated, unpaged).
OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal, About Painting, Xi'an, China, 2014 (illustrated, p. 76).
Xi’an, China, OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal,About Painting, March - July 2014.

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay


Amidst the swirling sand and between the thorny bushes, several Bactrian camels pose calmly at attention. The camel at the centre stands tall and solemn, a man dressed in green seated on its back. At the first glance, the exotic sandy soil and camels suggest a depiction of scenery from the Middle East or Northern Africa, evoking one of the scenes favoured by French artist André Bauchant. Upon closer examination, however, we realise that the work depicts a Chinese landscape. The man dressed in green is a Liberation Army solider, and the human figures “camouflaged” in the yellow of the bushes are a group of civilians dressed in what appear to be matching yellow circus costumes. In a gymnastic formation, they hold a white porcelain cup in the air with one foot, nearby another foot proffering a bunch of bananas - extending a surreal welcome to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

This painting, entitled The Mountains and Waters Always Echo Our Love No. 1, was created in 2014. Born in Henan Province in 1970, Duan graduated from the Department of Oil Painting of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1995. Since 1999, her work has been featured in various major exhibitions domestically and overseas, including the 50th Venice Biennale (2003), “China Welcomes You…Desires, Struggles, Identities” (2007) at Kunsthaus Graz, “A Potent Force: Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan” (2013) at Rockbund Art Museum, and “Absolute Collection Guideline” (2015) at Sifang Art Museum. In 2017, Duan was selected for The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and she participated in the exhibition “One Hand Clapping” (2018) at the museum the following year. Her work was later added to the museum’s permanent collection.

As an artist who both writes and and paints, Duan’s paintings possess a strong narrative drive and textuality. Her paintings feature an array of narrative themes, while she deliberately employs contrasting, dramatic colours and down-to-earth brushwork. One may consider Duan one of the most influential female artists among contemporary artists from China at present. However, what sets Duan apart from other female artists of her generation is that there is no trace of female vulnerability in her work. One may even say that there are no distinct traces of gender in her work, and it is difficult to discern the artist’s gender from the composition and theme.

The title of the work, The Mountains and Waters Always Echo Our Love, is derived from a popular Cantonese love song, suggesting the theme of civilian affection for the People’s Liberation Army. However, the artist not only turns away from the conventional realist approach, but also presents the Chinese rural landscape in a comical, even slightly absurd manner. The artist uses “plain” brushwork that evokes amateur paintings to create an artistic language that is literary, imaginative and uniquely hers. The People’s Liberation Army, rural villagers, animals and villages are traditional elements in contemporary Chinese painting, and they frequently appear in Duan’s work. Rendered in intentionally imperfect lines, they create a lively, unsophisticated scene that resounds with the artist’s humanistic concern, bringing the viewer into a dreamscape woven by the artist.

In one interview, Duan elaborated on her intentionally “naïve” approach: “I’m interested in the works of community painters, amateur painters and non-professional painters. There is something raw, natural, and untrained to them that is particularly moving (I’m partial to naïveté after all). I hope to instil some of that energy into my work.” This reminds one of the French painter Henri Rousseau, a representative artist of naïve art. As a painter, Rousseau was often considered technically incompetent. The truth was that starting in 1880, he studied under the tutelage of Félix Auguste Clément and later Jean-Léon Gérôme, the renowned classical painter of history paintings. The “naïveté” of his paintings was a unique style that he later developed through rigorous and dedicated practice. Although the painter never expressed such sentiments himself, Rousseau’s work is considered the epitome of 20th century European painters’ rebellion against academic painting.

Similarly, Duan is a representative figure among contemporary Chinese artists who consciously revolt against the semiotic-laden and sociological narratives that have dominated much of contemporary Chinese painting since the 1990s. While the artist has impeccable technique, she employs naïve brushwork that resembles amateur paintings as well as bright colours, which are accentuated with distorted perspective and proportions. From the painting, the viewer grasps a profound absurdity and a deceptively light yet weighty humour. Conflicts and discordance give way to the most intense yet subtle lyric expression, which embodies the artist’s exceptional imagination.


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