Old Broadway in Winter

Old Broadway in Winter
signed 'Yun Gee' (lower right)
oil on canvas
121 x 101 cm. (48 x 40 in.)
Painted circa 1930s-1940s
Anon. Sale, Christie's Hong Kong, 28 April 2002, Lot 148
Acquired from the above by the previous owner
Anon. Sale, Christie's Hong Kong, 30 November 2008, Lot 556
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York Times, Old Broadway in Winter, New York, USA, 1945 (illustrated).
New York, USA, Lilienfeld Galleries, Paintings by Yun Gee, 5-21 April, 1945.
New Jersey, USA, The Jersey City Museum, Bergen Branch Library, An Exhibition of the Work of Yun Gee, 5-26 January,

Brought to you by

Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

"In every painting that comes from my heart, I am seeking to find the expressive vocabulary best suited to its era."
-Yun Gee

Honored with the title 'pioneer of Chinese modernism,' Yun Gee was the earliest Chinese artist to explore the modern art of Europe and America. He mastered Eastern and Western forms and created an individual style based on his unique theory of 'Diamondism,' while his success made him a shining example for other 20th century Chinese artists. This Old Broadway in Winter (Lot 29) is the finest example in Yun Gee's career of a representative New York scene, combined with multi-point perspective in composition and his own original use of colour. Old Broadway is a classic work from a period of the artist's full maturity, in terms of both personal style and technique.

Born in Guangdong in 1906, Gee at 15 moved to San Francisco to live with his father, and entered the San Francisco Art Institute. One of his teachers, Otis Oldfield (1890-1969), crucially shaped his understanding of and sensitivity to modern art. In 1926, Yun Gee held his first solo show at the Modern Gallery he helped found. This led to his acquaintance with the Prince and Princess Achille Murate (Fig. 1), and with their support, he was able to travel to Paris. There his work met with great affirmation, being selected for showing in the most prestigious European exhibition, the Salon des Indépendants. The Great Depression of the '30s brought about Gee's return to New York, where, at the invitation of the Museum of Modern Art, he produced his Wheels: Industrial New York (Fig. 2), one of the best-known works of his career.

The 1920s were known in Europe and the US as 'the roaring twenties': Given the unprecedented wave of modernization during that period, along with raging consumerist appetites, cosmopolitan lifestyles, anti-traditional spirit, and a hugely optimistic outlook on the future, everyone felt that a new and radically different age was on the way. In art, too, it was a brilliant and colourful era, as new concepts arrived in wave after wave, and new schools and factions sprang up. As one of the pioneers of modernism, Yun Gee derived inspiration from the new concepts of the '20s and '30s, among which Cubism stood out as especially revolutionary. Artists such as Georges Braque (1882-1963) (Fig. 3), who analytically depicted the relationships between different planes in his subjects, particularly impacted Gee's artistic outlook. Another artist, Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) (Fig. 4), was a leader in the French offshoot of Cubism known as 'Orphism.' Their analysis of light produced a further response among American artists known that was known as 'Synchromism' (Fig. 5). The theories of Synchromism, based on the colour wheel, used interactions between the primary colours of red, blue, and yellow to add freshness and brilliance to artists' works, and also deeply influenced Gee's art. Gee's works further tend to make metaphorical references to the subconscious, dreams, and poetry, while their narrative quality and multi-point perspective point toward the legacy of traditional Chinese painting. One example is an early Gee work, Where is My Mother (Fig. 6), in which Gee builds the Cubist spaces of his figurative composition principally from red, blue, and green; the Cubist influence is shown in the separation of discrete planes, which, combined with his colours, produces a stage-lit effect. These concepts ultimately shaped Gee's unique style, which emphasized a rhythmic organization of blocks and planes, brilliant contrasts, rhomboid or diamondshaped divisions, and blending of primary colours, to break through spatial limitations and give voice to the stories and latent emotions behind his paintings. He gave the name 'Diamondism' to the theory he originated, and it became the main stylistic approach he applied throughout his career.

Diamondism is like a prism, or one-way glass. It's only a vehicle. It's not a reason for my paintings, but a power behind them. It all depends on how the artist, and in fact the viewer, makes use of it.
-Yun Gee

These elements take on aspects in Old Broadway in Winter which signal that Gee's unusual style has now matured and become internalized. Gee no longer deliberately highlights the independence of different planes and primary colours. The painting has a softer, gentler look, and his Diamondism has reached a high degree of refinement. We can see that the sky and snowy street have been built up from exceptionally thin layers of red, blue, and green, while the notion of blended primary colours produces the brilliant, shifting light effects in the light yellow, sky blue, and pinks on the canvas. Those combinations provide visual richness, deriving from Gee's many years of experience in apply primaries in his Diamondism scheme. The layering of repeated shadows still reflects geometrical segmentation, producing a rhythmic interplay of light and shadow and enhancing spatial depth, while the street extends to its visual endpoint in the Empire State Building in the distance. Gee's eye takes in American brands popular at the time in such items as Rogers Peet clothing and Stetson hats, as well as the tobacco brand Fatima Cigarettes; at the same time, he faithfully depicts the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower (Fig. 7) in the distance. Gee's presentation of a rapidly advancing American society reflects his relationship with his era and the land in which he lived. He also breaks down normal spatial perspective, adopting the more narrative effect of multi-point perspective of traditional Chinese painting (Fig. 8). In the space created between the two main buildings, any number of separate narratives are taking place, from the couple in the foreground to the woman leading her dog, to the passersby on the street and the children playing in the distance, pulling the viewer deep into the dreamlike world of the painting. At the time, a number of Regionalist painters were popular in America, in particular Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) (Fig. 9), who like Yun Gee endeavored to unite modern art with American scenes and customs. Gee, however, in Old Broadway in Winter , finds greater spatial depth and richness of narrative, and a conception with deeper levels of meaning. Gee's composition is elaborately worked out and finely managed; his warm, golden tones highlight the warm sunlight and festive atmosphere on this winter's day, and symbolize the abundant energy of New York. By contrast with the heavier colours and more vivid personal views of other Yun Gee works, Gee's rarely seen approach in Old Broadway in Winter suggests the rich creative powers of the artist in combination with a sunny optimism about life. In 1945, this work was the subject of a special feature in the New York Post (Fig. 11). The story mentions 'Yun Gee' as a noted Chinese artist, along with exhibition information, and the inclusion of Old Broadway in Winter indicates it was considered very representative of his total output.

By 1932, Gee's reputation as an artist had already spread to China; he was mentioned in the Who's Who in China published by Millard's Review in Shanghai. By contrast with his brilliant compatriot Sanyu (1895-1966) across the Atlantic, Yun Gee eagerly embraced the avant-garde and was especially fond of depicting modern urban life. By combining an Eastern outlook with Western techniques, he promoted his own original style of Diamondism, tirelessly pursuing self-realization through art. He even offered classes overseas, inculcating a new generation of immigrants with new creative concepts, making him a leading pioneer among Chinese artists. Yun Gee's Old Broadway in Winter marks a high point of success for the artist. It is a one-of-a-kind work illustrating how the artist, with his mastery of East and West and old and modern techniques, fused them into an artistic vocabulary that became uniquely his own.

"In this twenty-first century world without aesthetic borders, Yun Gee has at last been granted his place in the history of modern art."
-Ilene Susan Fort, the Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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