Born to a prominent family in Fuzhou, China in 1898, Fan Tchunpi at 14 went abroad to study in France, and in 1916 was accepted into the Académie Julian in Paris, the first female Chinese student ever accepted by that school. She further entered the École des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux in 1917, from which she graduated with distinction in 1920, then went on to gain admission to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts de Paris (Fig. 1) by examination. A number of Western masters, such as Ingres, Delacroix, and Matisse were graduates of that school, as well as Chinese artists who worked in the oil medium such as Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, Xu Beihong, Pan Yuliang, and Wu Guanzhong. Fan Tchunpi had a number of showings at the Salon exhibitions during her time in Paris, and in 1924, two of her works were chosen for exhibition there. One of them, The Flute Player, sparked a great deal of interest, and was chosen for the cover of the renowned art magazine Les Annales; Fan was referred to as "an exceptional female artist from the East."
Female artists such as Cai Weilian, Georgette Chen, Pan Yuliang, and Guan Zilan who made a contribution to the history of Chinese art in the 20th century were rare; Fan Tchunpi is an important member of that group (Fig. 3). She was able to achieve a style that was reserved and elegant, with dexterous and expressive technique, regardless of whether she was painting portraits, still life, landscapes, animals, or floral-themed works; her style displayed her mastery of the essentials of both Eastern and Western art and her thoroughgoing knowledge of painting. Her exceptional life story and her tireless pursuit of artistic achievement made one of the artistic legends of the 20th century. In 1978, the University of Hong Kong's Fung Ping Shan Museum held a Fan Tchunpi Retrospective Exhibition, and in 1984, the Musée Cernuschi in Paris also held a retrospective, Fan Tchunpi, Contemporary Chinese Artist: 60 Paintings or 60 Years in Painting. Such retrospectives acknowledged her historical status in the art world, both in China and internationally. For its Hong Kong 30th Anniversary celebration, Christie's has brought together a selection of seven important Fan Tchunpi works, covering nearly a half century, and produced during different historical periods in various media and featuring varying subjects. This selection of works presents the development of this Eastern female artist over time and also traces her career from her beginning steps in Paris to her giant leap to the US.
Fan's Portrait of Wang Wenbin (Lot 405) dates from 1929, when she returned to China for a short time, and is a portrait of the nine-year-old second daughter of Wang Jingwei and Chen Bijun. Wang Jingwei was a long-time friend of Fan's husband Tsen Tsongming (Fig. 4); Tsen was in fact shot and killed in an assassination attempt in 1939 in Hanoi in which he was mistaken for Wang Jingwei. This portrait of Wang Wenbin was painted in the flower garden of the Wang's Nanjing residence (Fig. 5); Wang Jingwei was very taken with the portrait, and even wrote an essay in praise of the work. The young girl, wearing a red summer outfit, leans to one side with an innocent and simple-hearted expression, her youthful vitality highlighted by the rich emerald green of the lawn and its richly colored flowers. The artist skillfully captures the extension of the scene from background to foreground and the play of light and shadow across the grass in her pleasing arrangement of lines and blocks of color.
Another exceptional oil is Fan's 1961 Zen Life: Dr. Suzuki (Lot 406). This work echoes another, The Beginner's Mind (Fig. 6), currently in the collection of the Long Museum of Shanghai, which also takes D.T. Suzuki as its subject. The latter painting shows Suzuki as an itinerant monk, while in Zen Life, Fan captures a moment of quiet reflection as this Zen master reads alone. Incense smoke wafts upward in rings from a white ceramic burner; a weasel-hair writing brush lies atop a paper scroll on which the ink is still wet; and a half-open folder of Buddhist classics occupies the right side of his desk. Zen Master Suzuki wears an expression of concentration. Time seems to stand still and hover on the edge of eternity, as he embodies the phrase 'the body a tree of perfect wisdom, the mind a bright mirror.' Fan captures with ease the texture of each object in the painting, and at the same time, invests their physical existence with a special spiritual aura. Zen Master Suzuki was a key figure who did much to introduce Zen Buddhism to the West; his writings helped spread Buddhist thought and were an important influence on Abstract Expressionism and the Beat Movement in America in the 1950s. Fan had left Paris in 1957 and taken up residence in the US in New England, and it was in the following year that she was introduced to Zen Master Suzuki by Serge Elisséeff, founder of the Harvard–Yenching Institute, and Japanese scholar Edwin O. Reischhauer, who invited her to do an ink-and-color sketch of Suzuki (Fig. 7). Her two later oil portraits were both derived from that sketch, and capture the demeanor of this great Zen master, particularly in the depth of expression in his gaze and the sense of personal wisdom.
Florence Rooftops (Lot 433) dates from the mid-1950s, when Fang traveled to Florence and painted scenery from life in Tuscany. Here she adopts a bird's-eye perspective in a painting filled with red-tile roofs, while a clock tower in the middle distance seems to partially merge with the far background. Fan sets out her well-considered composition in rich textures; her brushwork is quick and her color application dense, presenting the viewer with a striking and memorable view.
Four ink and color works are presented here. The first, from the 1940s, featuring Wang Jingwei's eldest daughter Wenxing, is Portrait of Wang Wenxing (Lot 432). Fan had given her the pet name 'pretty sister,' and she was frail in her early years; her parents used 'Xing' in her name in memory of Tsen Tsongming's older sister. Fan captures in just a few brushstrokes the image of this woman as a combination of gentle beauty and tough strength. In the 1940s, Fan at one point returned to China, and painted with Gao Jianfu and Gao Qifeng, the founders of the Lingnan School, her aim being to reform China's traditional painting styles with Western painting techniques. Fan had always loved flowers, and this Pink Flowers in a White Vase (Lot 431), from 1935, is a large hanging scroll painting. The tiny blooms in spring-like pink line their stems like jumbled strings of Chinese lanterns; the white ceramic vase and black stems create clear visual contrasts, for an effect not unlike the flower-and-vase paintings of another great 20th century Chinese master, Sanyu. Fan's White Lotus Flower with Dragonfly (Lot 429) dates from 1943, a year in which she made the acquaintance of Qi Baishi and painted his portrait; the dragonfly in this painting is one of the tiny and vividly portrayed creatures that would often appear in Qi Baishi's paintings. Fan's 1954 White Cat and Butterfly (Lot 430) is a strikingly lifelike presentation of her beloved cat in a playful moment. Fan's works on paper show how deeply she responded to the things around her, and her unique insights into them; with her emotional reserve and her special, personal language of form, she continued the long-inherited cultural traditions of China.