‘He must form his art into an aesthetic, spirit unity so that nothing interrupts the rhythm and inspiration of that truth. Throughout scientific improvement [the Chinese artist] will absorb Western influence, but [his] racial character will remain forever.’
The Chinese Artist and the World of Tomorrow. By Yun Gee, 1926
During Yun Gee’s early residence at San Francisco in the United States From 1921 to 1927, he started to access and explores western artistic style and technique. The traditional Chinese painting and culture he learnt before collided and blended with bold and experimental artistic genres originated from the United States in Yun Gee’s mind to gradually form a style incorporating unique ethnical characters and humanistic implications. These four pieces of Yun Gee’s works presented in this auction season were all painted in this important period of time while the rudiment of his artistic style to be formed. They are great manifestations of the artist’s passionate talent and pursuit as well as fluctuations of his youth time.
In 1925, Yun Gee entered the California School of Fine Arts, coming into contact with schools of thought as varied as Synchromism, Cubism, and Fauvism, and with the outstanding guidance of his teacher Otis Oldfield, he made highly intuitive use of those influences in his works. Synchromism was one of the earliest pioneering artistic movements in the US at the beginning of the 20th century, juxtaposing blocks of colour to shape the structure of the composition and even the human figures within it. But this was a compositional style that placed heavy technical demands on the artist in terms of creating the complex dynamic of a human form from a structure of basic geometrical shapes. The sketches Yun Gee painted in 1925-26 (Lot 599) reflect the artist's profound understanding of the Cubist style of this type. The two studies show him exploring the dynamics of male and female forms respectively, and while each makes use of a polyhedron to express their skeletal frames and musculature, Yun Gee's grasp of the differing qualities of line and light still precisely differentiate the soft fullness of the female form and the strength of the male. Even these relatively simple sketches are capable of revealing the artist's exceptional understanding of control over the structure of the human form.
1926 was a key year in Yun Gee's developing artistic career. He and 10 other artists, including Oldfield, founded the Modern Gallery in San Francisco, where he held the first solo show of his life and established a Revolutionary School of Chinese Art for his younger compatriots. At the same year he also made the acquaintance of the Prince and Princess Achielle Murat, who the following year would sponsor him on a trip to the world's artistic capitol of Paris for further study. Yun Gee's Double Self Portrait from 1926 (Lot 414) shows Yun Gee, as a Chinese artist, in a self-reflective state of mind, providing a summation of the artistic style that had been gradually maturing, and provides valuable revelations of the hopes and aspirations in the artist's heart as he prepared for his journey to France.
As a Chinese-American painter, each of his self-portraits bore the mark of the conscious self-awareness brought out in him as he journeyed through different Western cultures. Those portraits reflected both his stylistic development and his personal shifts in outlook during the different periods in which he painted them. For Yun Gee, both painting and poetry were avenues for the release of feeling and expressing his train of thought. His brushwork, just like the characters in his lines of poetry, reveals the truth of his inner world (Fig. 1). In this symmetrically composed double self-portrait, the two images of his face seem to be regarding each other, though one's gaze is directed more forward and the other more to the rear. The image on the left is set out in geometrical blocks of beautiful and highly saturated colours of carmine, silk yellow, jade green, and cobalt blue, with facial contours that highlight the Cubist emphasis on structure. And the image on the right seems more flattened, with a facial lineament outlined with exquisite brushstrokes of a vintage charm in Chinese ancient figure paintings. Skin is set out in a gradation of orange and yellow shades, which not only restores the Asian artist’s ethnical character, also indicates his Paris period (1927-1930), an early exploration of applying soft lines to depict a confident and deliberate image and his preference for the rendering of gentle yellow colour reminiscent of the glory of the setting sun. (Fig 2) The two faces overlapped and collided with each other to present an image of an ambitious young Chinese artist and reveal his confidence and hesitation as well as an introspection of observing his own ethnical character while exploring original artistic style in the west.
The unified inclining brushstrokes in this double self-portrait demonstrate Yun-Gee’s particular emphasis on the dynamics and sequence of the brushwork while painting. The integration of colours and lines achieved an equilibrium state of the whole work as a properly composed music giving a harmonious rhythm. In Yun Gee’s another portrait (Lot 415) commissioned for his friend Mr. Lin in 1927, an angular lineament of the male portrait was pieced up by several small geometric blocks of various colours. He abandoned the depictions of lines and contour and tried to express a three-dimensional world solely with pure colours, to reflect the spatial depth through staggered arrangement of colours and to build a volume of the figures by flattened and dynamic colour blocks. The running of tranquil colours vibrantly expresses the gaze and emotion of the figure in the painting and gives the whole work a rich humanistic connotation.
1 University of Washington Press, Anthony W. Lee edited, Yun Gee: Poetry, Writings, art, Memories, Seattle, USA, 2003 (p.141)