My entire life, my soul and my energy, everything I have, have grown from being steeped in this combination of Eastern and Western backgrounds, culturally and artistically. The torrential impact of these influences sparked my creative work and brought me greater spiritual fulfillment.
- Chao Chun-hsiang
Chao Chun-hsiang was born to a cultivated family. His father was one of the five prominent calligraphers in Henan. Hence, since fifteen, he had already substantially acquired the basic skills of the traditional Chinese painting. During his study at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, he gained a lucid understanding of the essence of Chinese philosophies of Confucian, Buddhism and Daoism. After 1955, with the impact of modernist ideologies on Europe and the US, he was becoming even bolder in exploring different forms of art, and began searching for his own way of fusing the art of the East and the West ushered in by his mentor Lin Fengmin.
Spring (Lot 1328) shows Chao Chun-hsiang's boldness in adopting diversified artistic forms: In the foreground, he uses expressive brushwork to articulate the manner of bamboo leaves, introducing the usual elements of literati painting to the more profound sentimental expressions, echoing the dynamic brushstrokes pertaining to the Abstract Expressionism. The artist's feat of line, as shown in the fluid brushwork mixed with twists and turns, derives from his virtuosic practices in calligraphy when he was young. Furthermore, the variations in brightness, lightness, dryness and wetness of the bamboo branches ingeniously accentuate the depth of field and spatiality. The circle on the painting is one of Chao's favorite geometric forms, resembling the sun or the moon rising high on the painting. The circular form, in the East and the West, invariably symbolizes integrity and eternity: The ancient Greek philosophers thought that "roundness is the most perfect form", whereas the Chinese since antiquity have conceived the idea that of "heaven is round and earth square", revealing their unique penchant for roundness. In the painting, the various coloured concentric circles extend outward, projecting an image resembling the aureole of the sun and moon, and in addition to the subdued motion, symbolizes the perpetuating and recurring universal spirit. Chao was inspired by his mentor Lin Fengmian's radical use of colour, ushering in the use of vibrant colours in ink painting, emphasizing the harmonious combinations and coordination possible between ink and colour. But Chao also saw colour as an independent element, which with ink can also create conflict and contradiction. With his vibrant use of colour, the painter also displays his sensitivity to the milieu of the modern art movement he had undergone. Bright contrasting primary colours further enhance the minute changes in the rhythm of ink. The symbolic spirituality contrasts with the ink tones, seemingly clashing with each other, but managing a balance under Chao's selections and manipulations.
Created in 1968, the Untitled No.7 (Lot 1329) is a rare composition by Chao depicting birds and flowers. Despite eschewing symbolic messages, it further highlights the artist's succinct yet expressive brushwork. In the painting, the lines articulating the birds are free from convention formal restrictions: The dark ink dot enlivens the enormous, piercing eye; the tail seemingly emerges from a painterly spontaneity but nonetheless contains subdued and subtle variations of ink tones, resonating with the three primary colours - red, yellow and blue-that dominate the picture plane. Living for a long time outside home country, Chao had raised many birds in his New York apartment. A bird lover and a bird painter, he frequently made analogies between his painted objects and people, his animals resembling his absent family members. Hence his birds and flowers in paintings in no sense play the supporting roles as those in the traditional literati painting but are closely bound to the artist's life: Not only is the painting filled with enriched potency of life but also symbolizes Chao's feeling for and attachment to the world's myriad creatures. Viewing On Golden Pond (Lot 1328), a work created ten years after, we can also see the artist's serious study of the combination of Eastern and Western forms. The use of fluorescent colours and symbolic representations has increased, and there is also a shift from his usual composition format. The translucent light blue in the foreground, the golden pond in the middle ground, and the plunging ink rhythm in the background tend to be the clear gradations of the traditional ink painting. However, the bright orange and the fluorescent green patches are evenly distributed on canvas, allowing us to view seemingly from a fruitful tree the captivating scene. Chao has deployed the concept of "decentralization" of Abstract Expressionism: the viewers' gazes focus no more on a single subject but, after knowing well the dots and lines and surfaces, roams freely in the abstract realm of the painting.
Chao says: "safe yet not strange, is a work of mediocrity; strange yet unsafe, a novice; the stranger the safer, that's a painting of the 'upper' order." With the combination of the traditional Chinese aesthetic foundation and the unrestricted style of Western modern art, and with his solid foundation of ink painting, Chao invents an exciting and dynamic aesthetic, fusing Eastern and Western culture. Responding to the pressures of his era, Chao adroitly sidesteps any overly formal adherence to one school, offering instead an utterly unique artistic vocabulary drawn from the best of both worlds.