The development of modern art in China cannot be understood apart from the vagaries of the political environment during recent historical eras. During the 1920s, Western classical realism and aesthetics were introduced into China, but the course of art history underwent a major shift in 1942 when art was identified as a primary tool for the propagation of political views. Mainstream art focused strongly on ideological themes, and realism became the dominant style for depicting everyday life. In 1978, China entered another new period of opening and reform, allowing artists the freedom to explore much broader horizons. New diversity in art forms was introduced and China's art schools gradually became centres for experimentation in modern art. Wang Yidong was one artist who engaged in such exhaustive study and experimentation. This led him in a new direction, developing a highly individual style somewhere between tradition and new wave, embodying both Eastern and Western aesthetics while preserving his own purely humanistic aesthetic intentions.
Wang Yidong's paintings are earnest and humble portrayals of humankind, less concerned with physical than with moral beauty, endeavouring to project the aesthetics inherent in simple quotidian scenes. His essential idealism, realistic environments and classical themes are drawn into a modern and decidedly Chinese context, suggesting parallels between the two periods of political idealism, struggle for liberty, heroism, austerity and the values of simplicity and human virtue. Reverberating inspirations from the Italian Renaissance he studied during his stay in America as well as the Chinese gong bi hua techniques from Shangdong Art School, Wang utilized fixed-point perspective, the accurate representation of human body and the naturalistic landscape with meticulous brush work of gong bi . Clarity and balance of these two qualities are harmonized in surprisingly simple but deeply felt picture of humble scenery of a wedding day in A Married Woman in the Mountains (Lot 1001). Depicted in a timeless manner, the two figures stand in heroic monumentality exuding an aura of peace and nobility.
The compositional arrangement looks casual at first, supporting the impression of a tranquil composure. With growing awareness of the staged reality of this episode, viewers notice the calculated rhythm in the movement and distribution of the figure's posture. The cross shape of their physical frame is echoed on the ribbon tied on the man, green pattern on the drapery, and also materialized on the linked contour of the two figures holding hands. Regardless of whichever pictorial element the viewer begins in appreciating the overall painting, eyes glide smoothly, even locking eyes with the two protagonists in momentary sentimentality. The slanted lamp guides us to the eyes of the male, where we follow his adoring gaze, arriving at the reserved eyes of the female. Her petite shoulders delicately curve our sight to her vibrant red cloth, coyly folded on the bottom to arc our eyes above with the slight tilt of her right foot returning us back to our starting point.
Upon close inspection, the canvas can easily be viewed as a symmetrical halves of two separate portraitures of a man and a woman; a subtle visual play suggested by the discontinuing pattern in the middle of the floral drapery on the background. Even the figures staged independently appear as two complete paintings on their own, verifying Wang's immaculate handling of paint in academic perfection and precise observation. Nevertheless, the power of the image as a whole is utterly profound and incomparable as we realize that such immaculate symmetry is premeditated in symbolic composition - the husband holds the lamp high to signal their bright future, taking lead by pulling his wife's hesitant hand towards him as she tilts her upper body away timidly; but her lower body is kept close, indicating her subtle dependence and faith towards her husband. This compositional tug between the two protagonists appear stable yet shaky, relying on each other's weight to stabilize their stance, allegorically choreographed to exhibit their emotional state of anticipation, excitement and nervousness, to be supported by their trust for one another. Though a remarkably simple method, the two newly weds holding hands secures the picture plane in firm unity and poise.
The painting's symmetry is apparent in the dichotomy of cold and warm hues, emptiness and embellishment, light and shade. He carefully layers thin and smooth oil paints to intensify the luminosity of the colours and creates subtle gradations in light and shade to emphasize the realism of the setting and the illusion of the threedimensional forms in his aspiration to induce a rich and unconditional feeling of beauty and the romance of the scene. The understated splendour of this mundane episode is recreated in theatrical exposition with Wang's conscious insertion of tremendously Chinese symbols. Established as Wang's personal, historical and iconographic motif, 'China red' is the principal colour of his composition, evoking aspects of China's age-old history and culture. Aware that the red colour has gradually instilled itself in the consciousness of the Chinese people as the deeply-rooted symbol of their own nation and culture, he knowingly employs the colour with its multiple meanings: wellness, good fortune, happiness, luck, long life, honour, peace, unity, success, devotion, courage, prosperity, romance, warmth, sexuality, zeal and more, enriching the painting and its aesthetic harmony.
Continuing to subtly incorporate a sense of cultural pride and admiration for tradition, Wang illustrates his respect for the reserved, traditional expression of love through his delicate portrayal of the young couple's tender love and unspoken fondness of each other, symbolizing their passion and tradition all at once through the thriving colour of red. He celebrates their marriage by blessing his canvas with symbols of peony, goldfish and lamp to wish a bright future of prosperity, nobility and harmony, and places them in between the protagonists for an allegorical effect, achieving spatial and graphic balance between the background and the foreground. The detailed fabric, borrowed from his gong bi method, draws the focus into the centre but surprisingly does not overwhelm the composition, and is instead used as a premeditated insertion for our eyes to yearn for the tranquility felt in the pure, serene simplicity of the figures, away from the intensely ornamented backdrop.
Full of symbolism, painstaking symmetry and translucent layers of paint, Wang's A Married Woman in the Mountains echoes one of his greatest influences, Jan van Eyck, evoking particularly of The Arnolfini Portrait (Fig. 1). But Wang's affection and respect to his traditional root is what crystallize his stance as one of the leaders of Chinese Realism, with his handling of space that mixes elements of both realism and modernism; a simple but wellhandled division of the compositional space explores the potential for cleavage of space into multiple parts in a realist painting. He sets strict aesthetic requirements for his handling of composition and shaping of human figures, based on his perception that carefully modelled forms and shapes can convey the true feeling and experience of the artist. The dignity and warmth of his portrayals return the focus of modern Chinese Realist painting to the basic elements of nature and human spheres of activity, embodying the principles of Naturalism and Realism movement.