(YU BEN, Chinese, 1905-1995)
Going to the Fields
signed in Chinese (lower left); signed 'YEE BON' in Pinyin; titled in Chinese; dated '1938' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas, laid on masonite
79.5 x 93.8 cm. (31 3/8 x 36 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1938
Sotheby's Taipei, 13 April 1997, Lot 23
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Culture Series: The Art of Yee Bon (1905-1995), co-sponsored by the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the Guangdong Painting Academy, 5-16 December 1996.

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Lot Essay

Together with fellow Hong Kong artists Lee Byng and Luis Chan, Yee Bon devoted himself to the promotion of Western art in the East through organizing exhibitions and educational activities in Hong Kong throughout the 1940s. Their collective efforts and historic contributions to the early development of modern art in Hong Kong won them great reputations, and even in their time they were recognised as The Three Musketeers of Hong Kong's art scene. Yee Bon's enthusiasm for bringing the arts of the West to China was born of his own early experiences and education. At the age of thirteen, Yee Bon had left China for Canada to study and in search of work to support his family. In 1928 he was admitted into Winnipeg School of Art (then the Ontario College of Art), receiving French and British academic training under the guidance of L.L. Fitzgerald and J.E.H. MacDonald, studying Western classical and realist techniques. In 1935 he left Canada and relocated to Hong Kong, on the brink of Sino-Japanese War and Pacific War, a time when the shortage of resources was tremendous and investment in cultural activities was not a priority. Yee Bon set up an art studio to continue his work as well as to teach, and never stopped to paint despite these challenges. His paintings of this period truthfully documented the old Hong Kong of the 1940s and '50s, as well as the unique cultural and geographical characteristics of southern China.

In the preface of Yee Bon: 1905-1995 published by Cave Art Centre, artist Lin Chuan-Chu commented that Yee Bon demonstrated a high level of self-consciousness and intention, infusing nationalistic spirit into his oil paintings. After coming back from overseas, Yee Bon, witnessing the social changes in China from an artist's perspective, attempted to merge the techniques learnt from the West with the spirit and art of his own nation so as to create oil paintings that are modern in style as well as true to his cultural roots. This rationale prompted him to seek the very subject matter that could convey his objectives. In 1937, when Yee Bon was invited by Xu Beihong to paint and travel with Xu to Guilin, he found the answer. Alongside the Lijiang River, there were boat trackers struggling to fight against the strong current, and Yee was deeply moved by the perseverance and vitality he saw in those workers. He thus was inspired to create a series depicting the trials and quiet heroism of the working class.

In Going to the Field (Lot 1024), painted in 1938, Yee Bon uses robust brushstrokes, coarse lines, and dense colours to depict a sturdy farmer lad leading the buffalo and striding with full spirit to the fields at daybreak. The artist deliberately lowered the neck of the buffalo, creating a visual effect as if it were heading to the bottom right corner of the painting. Strong contrast of light and shade form on the back of the buffalo, and its massive body is segmented in half by forty-five degrees; together with its crescent-shaped horns, a pointed arrow is artfully formed, which adds a sense of weight and dynamism in the picture. Moreover, the ground painted behind the farmer, the cottages along the river and the mountains in the distance, all lend themselves to a harmonious composition formed the geometric shapes of Cezanne's postimpressionist landscapes. His brisk brushstrokes simplify the background and the subject in the front, displaying the strong build of the farmer and the buffalo as a result of daily chores and toils. The clouds in the clear blue sky flow out from the centre of the background, where light is diffused between the gaps of the clouds, infusing the painting with dramatic lighting and a rhythm commonly seen in Romanticism. Yee Bon's admiration for Eugene Delacroix is also noticeable. The scene is filled with pastoral and poetic notions as in Chinese ink paintings. The slightly upward perspective further magnifies and dignifies the glorification of the peasant's perseverance in daily life. In fact, as early as in the beginning of 1935, right upon Yee Bon's return to Hong Kong, he used a similar composition in his much-celebrated Homeward Bound at Sunset, in which he depicts a farmer and his cattle returning home in dusk. In this painting, he intended to express his immense gratitude towards his motherland upon his return to home, and this emotionally charged work was critically acclaimed. Compared with that earlier piece, Going to the Field, 1938, possesses a well-rounded composition, where the austere images as well as the strong vitality of the farmer and the buffalo are still retained, while the application of colours and the layered arrangement of frames are more mature, revealing Yee Bon's continued investigation into the fusion of both the spirit and the techniques of Eastern and Western art. It also reflects his persistence in refining through studying the same subject matter again and again, and that he poured in a strong sense of emotion of the era. Towards the end of 1996, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and the Art Gallery of Guangdong jointly organized a series of exhibition named Hong Kong Culture, and particularly selected this important work by Yee Bon, recognizing it as embodying the essence of artistic development in Hong Kong in the 1930s.

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