Art's rich ties to specific eras and locales have been evident throughout human history. Great artists reflect the character of their own era and nationality, but without being limited by them; in their work, meaning and form complement each other within a distinctive and recognizable personal style. The art of Liao Chi-Ch'un, a figure of early 20th-century Asia who was caught up in the increasingly frequent exchanges, and occasional clashes, between the East and the West, reflects the unique character and significance of his era. In addition, the three works presented at this Evening Sale, The Nude (Lot 1012), Ship (Lot 1013), and Flowers (Lot 1011), which span a 40-year period of creativity, allow us to see this artist consistently projecting a unique outlook and style even in diverse subjects.
The Nude is one of the earliest extant works of this artist. Painted in 1926, the third year of Liao's studies at the Tokyo Art School (the predecessor of today's Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music), it was his entry in the very first Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition held the following year in 1927, where it brought the young artist immediate attention and recognition. In addition to the major significance of the work for Liao Chi-Ch'un himself, it is also a representative work that allows us to explore and analyze the artist's early style. While the artist did produce portraits at later points in his career, the fact that he only rarely produced nude figure studies makes this work all the more unique and valuable.
The instructors of the Tokyo Art School, including Kuroda Seiki, Kume Keiichir?, Fujishima Takeji, and Okada Saburosuke, were leading figures in early 20th-Century Japanese art. While plein air painting, a branch of Impressionism especially concerned with outdoor light and air, had been introduced into Japan, in other respects Japanese art was still largely under the sway of European schools of naturalism and realism. As one of Liao's early works, The Nude therefore still displays some features of classicism in its colour and composition. Liao Chi-Ch'un sets off the warmer skin tones of the female model against a background of dark brown and greenish-black, whose contrasting dark and light tones enhance the dramatic effects of light and shadow. While the model is centrally positioned in the painting, an offset block of yellow ochre helps avoid an overly symmetrical composition, and our eyes follow the model's gaze toward the lower left, which, along with the sense of increased brightness in the warm colours, creates the feeling of broad, open space.
Human figure study has been an important element in the basic training of artists ever since the Renaissance, and while the subject of the female nude is a common one in Western art, it nevertheless displays an artist's ability to observe in detail as well as control the overall composition. Matisse once observed, "What interests me most is neither still-life nor landscape, but the human figure. Through it I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life." In The Nude, rather than striving for the detailed accuracy of the realists, Liao's rough brushwork creates rich blocks of colour that highlight the sense of physical weight and the model's plump fullness. Despite her fixed pose, Liao captures the strong sense of implicit motion and vitality in this figure. Even early in his career, Liao sought to project the emotional qualities of his subjects, a focus on their inner nature that here seems to presage his turn toward abstractionism in the 1960s.
In 1962, at an invitation by the United States Department, Liao set off on a tour in which he studied and visited throughout the US, after which he went on to see the museums of Europe and Southeast Asia. Exposure to abstraction brought an impact that, after his return, led to clear stylistic changes. In an interview with the monthly publication Lion Art by Huang Shih Arts Publishing company, Liao noted that, "As Chagall once said, he went to Paris not to study art, but to be inspired. Everything I found in Paris helped me very quickly discover a new method for myself. " The "new method" Liao had found meant focusing on the beauty of form emphasized in abstract art, and injecting it into the depiction of real scenes. Liao's efforts in that direction had begun to mature around 1957, and the 1965 Ships presented here concretely expresses this ideal of semi-abstraction, marking a point in his career when a new direction became apparent.
Christie's was fortunate to discover, through catalogs and writings on Liao Chi-Ch'un's work, the existence of a 1962 work in acrylic on paper, Chicago (Fig.1), whose theme and composition closely resemble that in Ships. It may be that, by experimenting with and reworking this original waterfront scene which he had sketched during his travels, Liao ultimately simplified it into the highly abstract form seen in Ships. This work shows white sails clearly distinguishable in the foreground and middle distance amid a pleasing jumble of lines and blocks of colour, while the forms of buildings in white along the distant shore, concisely rendered but irregular in shape, lending it spatial perspective. The obvious difference between Ships and the earlier Chicago is the lines in cobalt blue that run from top to bottom in Ships- tall masts that add relief to a stable, horizontal composition that might otherwise feel slightly close, and further heighten its contrasts of depth and distance. Leaning slightly outward, the masts add a destabilizing tension to the work, and along with the work's pleasing colour harmonies, exert a strong hold on the viewer's mood.
Line is often dominant among the formal elements of Abstract Expressionism, due to the way its extension in space suggests movement and direction. Line gained greater prominence in Liao Chi-Ch'un's work in the mid-1960s, though not, as perhaps used by European artists, to express direction, force, or speed; Liao simply felt that lines in pencil could bring out more of the poetry in a work. In Ships, pencil lines drawn directly on top of the oils or scraped out of the barely dry pigments let us feel the hand of the artist at work, moving either deliberately or with deft sureness. Their soft, supple character inherits the special vocabulary of line in traditional Chinese culture, where lines that may seem casually applied reflect a control acquired only through a painting career spanning many years, like lines of poetry that acquire their timeless quality only after each word is pondered at length. In Ships these lines take on a calligraphic significance, as the fluid traces of brush or pencil become a vehicle for communication between artist and viewer.
Early in his career, Liao often painted over old canvases to produce a new work, which resulted in heavy, dense textures, but sometimes also in reduced brightness and intensity of colour. Only in his later years did he typically begin with a fresh, white canvas, adding extra richness and refinement to his chosen combinations of hues. In Ships, fresh tones of white, pastel yellow, and pink encircle the ultramarine at the center, avoiding heaviness or inertia and perfectly balancing the deeper blue tones. The principal colours here reflect the "five primary colours" used in the costumes and makeup of traditional Chinese opera (blue, red, yellow, white, black), while pink, one of Liao's favorite hues, is one of its "secondary colours." Liao spent his childhood years in Taichung County's Fengyuan, and the vivid colours remembered from its brightly coloured shrines and temple fairs in Ships. Thus while employing a modern stylistic vocabulary, Ships strongly alludes to Chinese traditions, its lines and colours echoing the native culture and philosophy of China.
Liao Chi-Ch'un loved painting floral still-lifes, and his approach toward them reflects the stylistic changes from his early to late periods. Through the 1940s, the focus was on detached observation, and direct depiction, whereas after the 1950s, he transformed his floral subjects into vehicles through which to project his own feelings, and the later works show more freedom and bravado in their brushwork, colour, and composition. Liao's student Li Yuanheng observed, "With many colours, Liao adds multiple layers of secondary colours either underneath or at their side, and because of these thick layers, there is a feeling of harmony within their strength. I especially appreciate his ability to use white that way." In Flowers, a patch of pure white appears in a reflection on the vase, which highlights the cold luster of its glazed surface and tellingly displays Liao's colouristic precision. In the 1960s, he began to emphasize his search for "the feeling of intense colour in our Chinese ethnic art," and formal elements drawn from Chinese painting take on greater prominence. Previous still lifes mostly drew on combinations of closely related hues, rarely using more than one intense colour; in Flowers the floral arrangement is set off against an ultramarine background as well as a crimson tablecloth. The pattern of the tablecloth echoes the painting's overall palette while the interweaving of warm and cool tonalities gives us a rich, gorgeous reflection of the colours of Chinese folk art. Liao grew up in a poor family that often had to get by on income generated by his mother, who embroidered patterns on the cloth shoes worn by neighborhood women. It is his exposure to these auspicious decorative patterns and their colours inevitably became an influence. The strong Eastern flavor of Flowers derives from the direct connection between colour and folk culture, in which the primary colours of yellow, red, blue, and green often represent appeals to good luck and fortune. Thus while Flowers remains purely a still life painting, its colours hold symbolic meanings that reach back through countless generations of Chinese folk tradition, embodying the aesthetics and attitudes of the common people of China