Yee Bon, as one of the most prominent painters during the 1950s in Hong Kong, his art works were enormously influential in the art development of Hong Kong in the early stage. In 1918, Yee Bon left for Canada and began receiving formal art education from L.L. Fitzgerald at Winnipeg School of Art in 1928. In 1929, he transferred to Ontario College of Art and studied under J.E.H MacDonald, J.W Beaty and Frank Johnson. 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 even though Hong Kong was a small fishing village in the 1930s and 1940s. Yee Bon had taken up a difficult task trying to pursue and develop oil painting in an environment with little existing new art movements, especially of that in the Western medium. Although he encountered financial difficulties during this time, it 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 thought oil painting was in its developing stage in China, especially in the south. To my surprise there are two such wonderful oil painters, Li Tiefu and Yee Bon, in Hong Kong." 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. Six of Yee's art works offered in this auction are the valuable pieces from the Hong Kong and Guangzhou periods, including figurative, landscape and still life paintings. They are the important resources of studying Yee's art with special subjects and significant historical value.
"A painter should paint the life that he is familiar with in order to reflect his passion towards things he's fond of, instead of constructing something that does not belong to his class. Otherwise it can only be an ornament rather than an art piece with feelings" , he once said. Yee Bon's experiences in growing up in the countryside and the hardship he went through working overseas as a labourer made him have deep affections and strong sympathy for the labourers. After returning to his home country, he devoted himself to the study of labourer-related subject matters, starting from sincere commiseration, gradually rising to adoration and admiration. When Yee was invited by Xu Beihong to a painting trip in Guilin, Yee's great concern toward the human nature diverted his attention from the beautiful landscapes to the boat tracker who struggle with the rapid Li River everyday. "Labourers are the most wholesome and the beautiful," he once said. Thus, fishermen, farmers, labourers and cart drivers are frequently seen as the subject matter in Yee's work. Portrait (Lot 1157) profoundly shows the firm and unyielding farmer's firm and focused facial expression. The farmer is depicted wearing a deep coloured cloth around her head and dressed in plain clothing, showing the artist's intention to remove details of the accessories and clothes to draw our attention towards the young woman's face. With her lips tightly closed, she gazes steadily into the distance, exuding a calm and brave personality. By replacing the background setting with simplistic olive green and copper gold colours, the artist expresses the profound influence and timelessness of the laborers vitality and courage. By using similar settings, Portrait of a Child (Lot 1158) reveals the maturity of a girl greater than her age. Painted in profile, Yee isolates her body from her face in order to place emphasis upon her bright and piercing eyes that gaze into the distance, filled with broad vision and great affection.
In 1956, Yee Bon was invited to visit Beijing and other areas; and after seeing the grand development and prosperity in China, Yee and his family moved back to Guangdong from Hong Kong with the hope of contributing to the country through art. He devoted himself to oil painting, trying to explore a style that fits the period with a hint of Eastern elements under the changes of a modernizing China. He said: "I am always thinking that when Chinese are learning western art, one should combine it with his own culture, and should also have more understanding about his art culture." In order to do so, Yee had been practicing traditional ink paintings to borrow techniques from it to bring oil painting closer to the East. View of Mount Yuexiu i(Lot 1155) completed in 1958, expresses the artist's own passion towards his country. Compositionally, the artist uses bird's-eye-view perspective to incorporate the tradition and vitality of Guangzhou, a southern city in China. When looking down from Yuexiu Mountain, the villages form a continuous line and extend towards the horizon. Their historic architectures with black roof tiles are the witness of the long Guangdong tradition. The rich content, exquisite details, brilliant colours and bright, cheerful disposition harmonize art and life.
Yee's landscape painting exhibits the local colour of southern China while his still life works illustrate his Chinese aesthetics and personality. In both types of painting, the subject matter, composition, and colour all originate from his personal experiences. Still Life (Lot 1156) uses exquisite skills and somber tone of hues that recall Classical Realism, but simultaneously emanate serenity and depth. The colours used in the background, tabletop, flowers and apples are almost of the same tonality, challenging the artist's skill in depiction and composition. The white and blue pattered fruit bowl is distinctly Chinese and perhaps more tranquil compared to Flowers and Vase (Lot 1159) and Roses (Lot 1160) that radiate a leisurely carefree mood, much like prose poetry. The oval shape of the vase, much like goose egg and is filled with vibrant flowers in egg yolk yellow, pink and white, forming different layers of cool and warm elegant colours. The fruits intricately balance the composition, and the brushstrokes are steady and bold, showing artist's confidence and delight. The use of colour in Flowers and Vase is gentle while the bright red and vivid pink roses depicted in Rose (Lot 1160) appear to be elegant and graceful set against the deep green background. Although the painting is small in size, the vitality implied by blossoming roses is seen throughout.