As a young soldier, Yu Chengyao often amused himself by writing poetry during his tours of duty in China's mountainous regions. After his retirement from the military, he made a living from import-export business between Fujian and Taiwan, and when it ended, he led a quiet life in Taipei, reading, practicing calligraphy, and indulging his fondness for the Chinese nan-guan musical style. He decided to take up painting at the age of 56. With one slow, careful stroke after another, he began to paint the landscapes of his memory and inner vision. Yu had no models or mentors, but forged ahead steadily, with patience and individuality, in a style of brush that is his own invention. Like Jin Nong, who only took up painting later in life, Yu Chengyao followed these principles: "Learn from nature, express your personality, develop your own method, paint your impressions, create clear images, guard your character, and cultivate a broad outlook."
During his 26 years of military service, Yu traveled throughout China's 18 provinces, taking in the grandeur of its natural scenery. As the artist described it, "When I arrived at a new post, I took a good look at the local sceneKI observed the customs and folkways in detail and I looked for special scenic views. If I happened to be familiar with local history or famous stories from the area, I might also derive a few poems from it. But no poem of 20 or 30 characters could do full justice to these places, so I had to make a statement through whatever seemed symbolic or struck me most deeply." Yu Chengyao's lifelong practice of distilling the essence of a scene into a poem helped refine the powers of observation and selection so crucial to an artist. Despite taking up the brush in his later years, he produced one masterful landscape after another, each of which uniquely blends the forms of nature with the personal feelings of the artist.
A good composition takes in everything: the great peaks and far-ranging clouds, the hills and lofty peaks rising above Tiantai, the extraordinary atmosphere of the peaks and caves, and the multitude of cliffs and valleys.
Shadowed forests climb upward in a scene of deep beauty. Layer on layer of transparent blues and greens, the special life of the place, all must be caught and transferred to the painting.
Yu Chengyao, "Waves Sift Sand"
Yu's poem Waves Sift Sand projects his feeling for the beauty of landscape while also pointing to features of his creative approach. The Yu Chengyao landscape offered in this sale, Abundant Spring (Lot 1009), transforms the sense of vibrant, living landscape in the poem into a physical, painted scene. The fresh green expanses of hills and trees exemplify this artist's feeling for the living heart of nature, and are reminiscent of the direct rendering of natural colour in the "blue-green landscape" style of the Sui and Tang dynasties (Fig. 1). The river that meanders through the composition divides the mountainous forms left and right; the shadowy backlighting of the craggy peaks on the left sets off the more brightly coloured trees and buildings, while on the right, huge rock faces and other natural features bask in more direct light revealing subtler details of texture. Yu devotes close attention to structure in the layered folds of the mountains, emphasizing as always the need to create "a sense of real physical presence." Just as in the painting Travelers Among Mountains and Streams by the Northern Song Dynasty painter Fan Kuan, Yu's approach here is one in which the massiveness of the mountains is projected with great impact through the subjective feeling and personal style of the artist. Song dynasty artists sought to depict vast spaces within a small visual frame and never adopted the kind of fixed, single-point perspective used in the West to try to reproduce spatial realism. Instead they sought to express the overall sense of a natural scene, the changes of the seasons or the passage from sunrise to sunset, or changes in perception as our gaze shifts from nearby spaces to distant ones, or from level to downward-looking perspectives. Only after an artist roved through a particular scene and grasped its underlying order and logic would he pick up the brush to paint. Rather than looking for landscapes that would produce fine compositions, Yu Chengyao drew on his lifetime of travel above and below the Yangtze River, sifting from his central impressions and feelings the compositional elements that would yield the greatest effect. Rather than being portraits of a specific time or place, Yu's landscape paintings simplify scenic elements in pursuit of the iconic, and the relative sparseness or density with which Yu applies his overlapping lines or Chinese pointillist "moss dots" is one way through which he injects personal feeling into his natural scenes.
Yu adeptly uses the sky and river in Abundant Spring to leave selective spaces in the painting unfilled. This "blank" or "white" space has always been a crucial element of traditional Chinese landscapes. While the landscape includes all the scenic elements to the greatest extent possible, the viewer's eyes are intended to roam every part of the painting. Empty spaces around the borders of the composition stand symbolically for expanses of sky and earth, and the inclusion of these unbounded conceptual spaces allows the painting to expand. Zhou Bo-bi's Essays on Four Forms of Emptiness states, "Do not take emptiness as emptiness. Instead, take forms as empty: transform scenic elements into thoughts and feelings. Nature, from beginning to end, is like floating clouds and flowing streams." Injecting such feeling into a scene depends on the interactions between solid forms and implied forms and spaces. Yu's short lines, densely interwoven, create textures in rippling, waving veins across mountains and stone. At the same time, solidly blocked-out forms and dense colours add weight and mass, while the openness of sky and water work to dispel any sense of congestion or oppressiveness. In ancient China there was a famous saying: "What is complex should not be heavy, and what is dense should not be closed, " a concept that allowed artists to create scenes with "meaning beyond the physical images."
With the rise of Abstractionism in the early 20th Century, the formal elements of lines, dots, and planes were liberated from the bounds of naturalistic representation and received attention in their own right. Yu Chengyao also, after years of close observation of nature, developed a similarly modern vocabulary of form. In Abundant Spring, his refinement of forms into lines, points, and planes shows us nature in its essential abstraction, while its dense, saturated colours add harmony and rhythm. While Yu clearly succeeded to the Chinese tradition (Fig.1), in which line is a central element, he just as clearly distanced himself from its stereotypical brushwork and textural strokes, and the liberation in his brushwork adds great vitality to his work. Viewed up close, the dense profusion of dots and lines reveals an internal order; from a distance, they are unified thematically in a lively presentation of mountain wilderness.
Paul C/aezanne, the father of Western Modernism, eschewed intricate detail in favor of simplified forms whose outlines he reduced to basic geometric elements, claiming, "all natural forms can be expressed as spheres, cones, and cylinders. " (Fig. 2) This same feature is apparent in Yu Chengyao's painting; in Abundant Spring, the dense entanglement of black lines and dots of colour within the larger, blocked-out divisions of the composition creates tangible geometric forms. Trees emerge as full, circular forms, while mountains and cliffs become cones or cylinders. Yu emphasizes their separation in space and their relationship within the composition, using their relative height, distance, and depth to create layering and depth. C/aezanne frequently employed simple, direct brushwork that gave his landscapes a rich textural feel, observing that "nature is more in depth than in surface." C/aezanne's view and Yu Chengyao's attitude toward the study of nature have in common their objective observation of external forms and the attempt to simplify and generalize them in a search for a basic, underlying structure of form with which to express their essential nature.
Given his passion in poetry and his concern with the conceptions of his works, Yu Chengyao could never mimic the formulas of China's past masters of landscape painting. It was his independent observation and understanding of nature, his special painterly vocabulary and visual imagery, that made him a successor to the great historical tradition of Chinese landscape painting and its highly evocative atmosphere. Abundant Spring on the one hand reflects certain aspects of Tang and Song landscape painters by creating a new synthesis from the artist's lifelong experience and impressions of landscapes; in another respect, it employs a modernistic vocabulary of form, creating a grand scenic landscape through harmonious variations in the weight and density of lines, dots, and planes. The result is the highly successful use of Eastern media in an exploration of subjects central to modern art, one that breathes life into the observation of Chinese painter Shi Tao, that "ink painting changes with each successive age"!