Having left school at the young age of fourteen, Qiu Yacai began to delve into the world of Chinese philosophies and Western literature on his own during his years of compulsory military training in Taiwan. He exposed himself to a breadth of works, including those of Han dynasty historian Sima Qian to Greek tragedians, Shakespeare and Russian novelist Dostoevysky, revealing his genuine concern for the complexities of human nature. Reinterpreting court paintings like those by Tang artist Yan Liben, Qiu fills in a contemporary equation by exclusively painting the intellectual middle class as his subject of the privileged. He depicts them as pure and detached characters whose true feelings and personalities are only revealed through the strongly marked eyes, a trait borrowed from the Eastern Jin artist Gu Kaizhi. In a rare and highly individualistic earlier work, Portrait of Man (Lot 1725), Qiu experiments with expressive brushstrokes and intense colours to capture the tension and psychology behind the mask-like face that stares engagingly at us.
The subjects of Qiu's portraiture are the ya ru (elegant scholars) and the liu lang (outcasts). Painted in mid 1990s, Middle Aged Professor of Literature (Lot 1762) epitomizes the contemporary scholar, whose tired eyes and gray hairs render a profile that is slightly aged, nonetheless, distinguished and brimming with wisdom. Qiu identifies himself with the Confucian scholar, his moral rectitude, elegance, and search for perfection; he is concerned with portraying the ideal portrait. Literati (Lot 1724) summarize the ideals of nobility and refinement of a Confucian fellow through the delineated flat blocks of strong, emotional colours seen through the lens of its creator.
The outcasts portrayed by Qiu are not of the poor and dejected, but are the urban beings that refuse to conform to societal norms. In Homosexual (Lot 1772), a character that appears in Qiu's novels, is depicted as a figure of androgynous features with folded arms and quizzical eyes. He appears elegant yet frail in this complex and nuanced painting. While most of Qiu's subjects appear to be solitary, even melancholic, they can still be controlled and self-possessed at the same time. They captivate the audience with their fragility and dignity, embodying the paradoxes of humankind beneath surface.
While Qiu's elongated forms recall works of Amedeo Modigliani, the delineation of figures with continuous strokes of black or blue ink reveals his passion for Chinese painting and calligraphy. Lady with a Rose (Lot 1773) shows his steady and free handling of the brush that is reminiscent of the traditional gongbi or meticulous style painting. Through simple but deliberate brushstrokes, Qiu is able to evoke glimpses of the inner psyches of the figures he paints. In Young Aristocrat (Lot 1774), the arched female figure weighs her head down in sentimental contemplation, yet her sculptural contours breathe of monumentality, sensuousness and elegant composure. A silent observer of urban dwellers, Qiu endows a type of timeless monumentality to his figures, and from the chaos of confused emotions, he has painted these unforgettable portraits with glimpses of permanence.