Just as Chinese oil paintings flourished along the coastline of East China in cities like Shanghai and Nanjing in the 1930s, a new force of oil art development rose as far south as Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Artists like Yee Bon, Li Tiefu, Feng Gangbai, Ng Po Wan, Luis Chan and Bao Shaoyou all once resided in Hong Kong, and contributed to a small, but remarkably vibrant, arts community.
In 1918, Yee Bon left for Canada and began receiving formal education at an art school in 1928.In 1932, Yee Bon became the first Chinese artist who earned a place in the National Art Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (Fig. 1) earning him international recognition.,He returned to his homeland in 1935, settling in Hong Kong, and started a studio in which he worked and taught. Hong Kong was but a small fishing village in the 1930s to 1940s. Yee Bon had taken up a difficult task trying to pursue and develop oil painting in an environment with little existing avant-garde movements, especially of that in the Western medium. Although he encountered financial difficulties during this time, this did not prevent him from holding exhibitions almost once every year. His productivity in artistic creation was just astounding. When Xu Beihong visited his exhibition and studio in 1937, Xu exclaimed in amazement, "I think oil art is a virgin soil in China, especially in the south. I have no idea that there exist two wonderful oil painters in Hong Kong: Li Tiefu is one, and the other, Yee Bon." Yee Bon devoted himself to oil paintings for the whole 60 years of his life; in retrospect, his career can be profiled as two phases, the "Hong Kong period" (1935-1956) and the "China period", with the year 1957, when Yee Bon set off for Guangzhou from Hong Kong, being the dividing line. This auction presents nine works of Yee Bon, every one of them a valuable piece of his Hong Kong period. Composed in themes of figure, landscape and still life, this collection is an important reference of Yee Bon's arts, bearing no small historical and artistic significance.
Grain Field (Lot 1309) depicts a herd of buffaloes, pulling drays loaded with grain crops, worked by a couple of sturdy farmers slowly through the yard. The yoked buffaloes gravitate doggedly; their bodies propel forward, their taut muscles proclaiming strength and labour. The diligence of the labourers has always been one of the subjects the artist depicts. Immediately after Yee Bon returned from Canada, he created the Homeward Bound at Sunset (Fig. 2) in 1935, which features a farmer returning home with his buffaloes. The artist, being born into a peasant family and laboured faraway from home, and hence was particularly empathetic towards labourers. This compassion drove him to picture the lives of fishermen, farmers and coolies. On one occasion Yee Bon reflected: "A painter should paint what is familiar to him and express his passion for these affiliations. Imaginations, as those that do not belong to his class, are nothing but decorations. They are not the works of emotions." When Yee Bon traveled to Guilin at the invitation of Xu Beihong, he paid no heed to the splendid landscape of Guilin; for his caring character all that attracted him were the boat trackers who row by the Lijiang River all day long. Now in the collection of the National Art Museum of China, Boat Trackers (Fig. 4), painted in 1938, pays tribute to the resilient laborers. Such theme of labouring finds a continuation in Grain Field, an integration of landscape and pictorial labourers. Through naturalistic depiction, Yee Bon portrays the figures in a rigorous composition, with defined brushwork and graceful contours; through colours, he conveys the scenic grain field in which the golden grains warm our heart and the azure sky opens our mind. The subdued colouring of classical realist arts is overpowered. Under Yee Bon's maneuver colours heighten the subject of laborers, revealing their tremendous vigor and beautiful nature.
Yee Bon's creative career reached its summit in the 1940s and 1950s. The artist, realizing that profound arts call for the assimilation of diversities, developed a distinct style of his own by examining widely the works of European maestros like Rembrandt van Rijn and Eugene Delacroix and the expressionist techniques. The monochromic, fairly mundane colouring of his early works was by this time divested of. In Beach (Lot 1308) and Scenery of Pearl River (Lot 1307), the artist merges his individual sentiment with artistic creation, affording the works a glaring and purified effect. Beach narrates a high summer beach where the sun-drenched vacationers have their refreshing swim. While the work alludes to Paul Gauguin's bold tropical colouring, the free-flowing brushstrokes that do away with excessive details simplify it, thus accentuating the estival vitality. A more exhaustive pursuit for simplification is shown in the Scenery of Pearl River, in which the sky, the steel bridge and the distant premises are painted in the short, near pointillist, strokes of the impressionist to capture the Pearl River Bridge in the last glow of sunset. Accompanying the bridge in the center of the canvas, a few small boats glide past the river, denoting the lively air along the Pearl River with a strong sense of localism.
The landscapes of Yee Bon put on view the domestic charm of South China; his still life paintings, on the other hand, reveal a temperament that prone to the Chinese aesthetics at large. The theme, composition and colours of the works are a fermentation of experience. Plant and Fruits (Lot 1305), finely brushed, with a muted tone, is an early work which manifests the technique and the tranquil, suppressed mood of the classical realistic paintings. A uniquely Chinese style is found in the work; the tall, slender Chinese vase, in cloisonne, is decorated with the imagery of an old man in Chinese traditional gown, and is set off by the brown teapot on the right. In Chinese fine-brush strokes the artist shapes the foliage, and these heart-shaped leaves are profiled against the purplish red grapes on the bottom right of the canvas. The balanced composition emanates an ambience of restfulness and elegance. Flowers in Jar and Fruit (Lot 1306) was painted after the 1940s, in the same period as Gladioli (Fig. 4) of 1948, a collection of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Flowers in Jar and Fruit exhibits a strong sense of personality, with a well-balanced structure and a definite, yet liberal, brushwork. The contrast between cold and warm colours is at once stark and implicit, pervading and splendid. All these showcase the artist's acute adeptness in maneuvering space and colours.