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(Chinese, B. 1955)
Yi River
signed and dated 'Wang Yidong 1995'; signed in Chinese (lower right)
oil on canvas
120 x 120 cm. (47 1/4 x 47 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1995
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

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Lot Essay

Wang Yidong was born in Linyi County in Shandong Province. It was there, in Shandong's Yimeng mountain region, that China's ancient Longshan culture was born. It is a region which preserves many of its ancient customs and traditions and it is the same region that fostered Wang's creative talents. From the 1980s, he made this region the focus of his work, as he discovered, interpreted, and conveyed the beauty he found in Shandong and its traditional culture. This is an artist for whom realism is not an end in itself, but a means through which, in the context of Chinese art, realistic images communicate a sense of the contemporary Chinese state of mind.
In Yi River (Lot 54), the rocky mountains typical of the Yimeng region form a dramatic, curtain-like backdrop to Wang Yidong's painting, for which he deliberately chose a narrow, shallow perspective. From the fact that the girls can reach out and touch the flowing water, we surmise that there is only a body-length's distance between them and the background. The close-up scene conveys the sense of a broad and towering rock face in brownish-black tones, with a complex texture created by the artist's palette knife, and lends the two girls a more stately and imposing air. But the Yimeng region that the artist wants to portray goes beyond just a sense of the stateliness of its history. Instead, in the flowing spring water that follows the rocks downward, the viewer can trace the artist's thought back to the sense of vitality that so inspired him in the Yimeng landscape. The painting suggests that this is a work painted in praise of the Yi River, the river that nourished the age-old Longshan culture with the same gentle power as a mother nurturing her child. To depict the flowing water that cannot be grasped, Wang brushes on delicate strokes of transparent flake white (lead white) pigments against the dark stones, his looser strokes here contrasting greatly with the thick, opaque brushwork and textures of the rocks. The effect is to re-create the rigorous forms, spaces, and light and shade of the classical realist style. But whereas the treatment of backgrounds in traditional classical realist paintings served only to create colour and spatial relationships among the figures they portrayed, a variety of meanings lie hidden in Wang's background, which occupies an important position in expressing the core thoughts and moods behind the painting.
The subject of Yi River derives the rural villages of China's mountain regions. But compared with other Chinese artists of the same period who painted rural subjects in a realistic style, such as Luo Zhongli or Cheng Congling, what Wang strove for was a certain kind of Chinese ambience and character, expressed in a pure and flawlessly beautiful aesthetic. In one respect this can be seen in the human subjects of his paintings. While Wang painted the landscape elements of his paintings on site, he spent many further hours with models in his studio, striving to achieve a rigorously realistic portrayal. While his chosen subjects were ordinary girls from rural villages, he nevertheless employed the same painting techniques, handed down for more than seven centuries, that gave Western Classical Realism much of its grand nobility. As a result, even his quite ordinary village girls take on the same air as nobles or religious figures in realistic portraits from the Renaissance, as Wang's technique imbues them with a kind of lofty presence and dignity. The technique he employs is known as glazing, in which successive layers of transparent colour are applied on top of the underlying forms or figures; along with this, his precise and practiced brushwork in the brighter areas of their foreheads, noses, and bracelets and other ornaments helps his central subjects achieve a kind of delicate prettiness and classical elegance. The character they project derives from Wang's consummate brush technique and use of colour; layers of transparent colour interact with the underlying base layer to create the natural glow of the young girls' skin tones, while his finely detailed brushwork outlines the hair that they lightly brush aside. Wang's accurate treatment of light, shadow, and colour presents the pleats and wrinkles of their clothing with vivid realism, and he produces an exceptionally refined yet completely unfussy sense of detail. Portraits in the classical realist style often used clothing as an expression of the subject's status, as shown in the delicate folds of clothing in Tiziano Vecellio's Portrait of Gerolamo Barbarigo. The young girls in Yi River wear clothes sewn with the floral designs that have always typified the culture of the Shandong area, and in Wang Yidong's painting we see how traditional folk customs have been handed down to the present day, as set out in the verse: "I am happy to see the mallard green, the cock's-comb purple; I delight in the pale waters of the Yi River tinged with blue. There is the light goose yellow, mallard green, and cock's-comb purple, the heron white, raven blue, and the red of the crane's crown!"
The two girls in Yi River stand at each side of the square canvas, occupying its full height in their standing positions, while the extended arm of the girl on the right connects them to form an "H" shape, resulting in a simple and balanced composition. This visual effect can be compared to the full-length portrait of the newly married husband and wife in Jan van Eyck's Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife; where the balanced composition of the hand-holding couple also creates a harmonious feeling. The compositional balance of Yi River imbues it with an atmosphere of peace, harmony, and ease-exactly the feeling Wang Yidong sought to convey through his paintings of the Yimeng mountain region. They serve as a reminder of a humanistic Chinese spirit and culture that is gradually being forgotten, one that includes man and nature coexisting in balance and harmony, and a sense of the happiness and good fortune of life.

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