Poly Auction Brings Six Masterpieces of Chinese 20th Century Art to Auction

Poly Auction Macau’s Fusion sale features six scarce masterpieces that are integral to understanding how Chinese artists first grappled with the idea of modernity in the 20th Century. Works by Xu Beihong, Li Keran, Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, and Wu Guanzhong set the stage for understanding how visual language took a decidedly contemporary turn once the Cultural Revolution drew to a close and China embarked on a path to rapid economic advancement, right around the time Zeng Fanzhi appeared on the scene in Beijing. These six works illustrate this fascinating and tumultuous century of Chinese art, and will make a rare reappearance in the secondary market this April thanks to Poly Auction.

Xu Beihong

  • Xu Beihong, Standing Horse

    Xu Beihong, Standing Horse

Xu Beihong was one of the leaders—if not at the vanguard—of modernity in early 20th-century China. A prolific painter and writer, he was among the first to express that, as a nation, there was a necessity to develop a visual vocabulary that would be modern yet distinctly Chinese in nature. One cannot understate the crucial significance of this artist in forging the trajectory of modern art during the turbulence that marked the early decades of the 20th century.

Beginning in 1919, Xu studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, apprenticing under the academic realist Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret. At the time, academic realism was already considered outdated. However, Xu embraced this practice wholeheartedly. His years in Paris and traveling through Europe gave him the newfound freedom to integrate Western traditions of perspective and composition with decidedly Chinese subject matter and media. While his fellow compatriots who travelled and studied in Europe would advocate for the more avant-garde styles of post-impressionist and expressionist movements of painting, Xu proved to be an exception. He steadfastly upheld academic realism as the best way of forging the most modern visual language appropriate to the times, asserting that modern painting should be for ordinary people. Xu’s commitment to realism was deemed incredibly patriotic; in 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established, and Xu became the president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and Chairman of the China Artists Association. A more political brand of realism became the official visual practice of these times.

The present lot by this important artist features the most renowned and sought-after of his subject matters—an unbridled, wild horse. His horses are muscular, expressive, and steadfast, a visual symbol for the spirit of the Chinese people, a nation that persevered during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s and 1940s. His studies in the Western tradition are apparent through dramatic brushstrokes in different shades of ink to create light, shadow, and anatomical precision. His paintings of horses—and other subjects such as farmers tilling the earth with oxen—have enjoyed massive success since the 1930s. His work has been featured in multiple solo exhibitions throughout Asia, with the artist subsequently donating the proceeds to support China’s war effort. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Xu was also an active leader in the campaign for independence and would often be involved in fundraising and advertising for the cause through newspapers. This specific work was dedicated to Mr. Jiang Guangtang of the newspaper Ta Kung Pao, still in publication today.

Li Keran

  • Li Keran, Summer Mountains, 1986

    Li Keran, Summer Mountains, 1986

Li Keran aimed to modernize Chinese art by devoting his artistic practice to capturing the Chinese landscape. He was first introduced to the concept of modernizing Eastern practices while enrolled in the Shanghai Art College in 1924. Three lectures given by Kang Youwei (a prominent political thinker and scholar) had a profound effect on Li. According to Kang, Western realism could be blended into the Chinese style of painting with hopes of modernizing and ‘reforming’ the tradition. Henceforth began Li’s in-depth study of two different traditions. At once he paid attention to the art of calligraphy of the Han Dynasty and the atmospheric brushwork of Song Dynasty academic painting; simultaneously, he studied scientific precision, Western perspectives, and chiaroscuro in the Renaissance tradition. Li enjoyed considerable professional success and recognition during the Sino-Japanese War and was invited to join the faculty of the Beijing National Art College by Xu Beihong in 1946. His preferred and most enduring subject matter proved to be the Chinese landscape. Over time, his style evolved as he began to sketch from life.

Oftentimes his followers will vigorously debate whether his best works were created in the 1950s, the 1960s, or in the 1980s at the very end of his life. The majority of critics and artists insist that his landscape paintings reached their zenith during the latter part of his career. The landscapes done in this period have an exquisite grandeur and darkness. Li’s accumulation of knowledge and experience garnered through his studies, travels, and evolving practice, especially during the years between the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the Cultural Revolution of 1966 - 1976, seemed necessary for the multi-faceted and grand landscape paintings.

The lot available in Poly Auction’s sale was created in the final years of the artist’s life and is characterized by the heavy use of black ink that dominates most of the surface. In the work, Li’s commitment to heavy calligraphic brushwork and observation-based painting becomes apparent. Li builds layer after layer of ink on paper, until there is discernible depth and shadow. The result is an existential weightiness, that can be found in many of his late-period paintings.

The Three Musketeers: Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun

Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, and Wu Guangzhou are leaders of the Second Generation of Chinese artists that travelled to postwar Paris. There, they incorporated formalism and abstraction into their search for a Chinese modernist aesthetic. Dubbed the Three Musketeers, these artists all studied at the same school in Hangzhou under Lin Fengmian, an influential painter and teacher who embraced Fauvism and Post-Impressionism in his teachings and practice.

Zao Wou-Ki

  • Zao Wou-Ki, 06.02.74, 1974

    Zao Wou-Ki, 06.02.74, 1974

Zao Wou-Ki is among the most well-known Chinese painters of the 20th century, considered an equal to his European contemporaries in his mastery of postwar abstraction.

While his compatriots Wu Guanzhong and Chu Teh-Chun went back to their motherland—bringing with them their training in Western art movements—Zao stayed behind permanently. From the very beginning, Zao seemed to be wary of the realist and observational style of Chinese painting, and instead integrated the techniques of traditional Chinese ink-on-paper works with the Western medium of oil paint. Furthermore, he was taken with abstraction, namely in large part to his discovery of Paul Klee. He also travelled across Europe in the late 1950s, becoming friends with Abstract Expressionist painters such as Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, and Hans Hofmann, wholeheartedly embracing their avant-garde movement. What resulted were stunning paintings that seemed to hover on the cusp of abstraction. His work is characterized by the unique combination of lyrical, contrasting colors and thick calligraphic brushwork, with hints of representational landscapes, reminiscent of Chinese academic paintings. This formed an entirely modernist vocabulary, something that European audiences could not find in the artists that were born and bred European. His paintings were met with acclaim by Western collectors beginning in the 1960s. But he did not gain recognition in China until much later in his life when he had his first major exhibition in 1983 at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

In the Macau sale, the lot by Zao is titled and dated ‘06.02.74’, created two years after the death of his beloved second wife, Chan May-Kan. The early ’70s were a time of intense emotional pain for the artist. As his wife suffered from mental illness, he found solace only in painting, his favored medium. This lot is brimming with emotional tension, as contrasting brown paint becomes entangled with violet, light blue, and chartreuse colors. It’s an expressive, abstract landscape, simultaneously evoking both the sorrow of personal tragedy and renewal.

Chu Teh-Chun

  • Chu Teh-Chun, Summer, 1977

    Chu Teh-Chun, Summer, 1977

Chu Teh-Chun’s work showcases the technique of ink wash painting that was heavily employed by the Chinese literati during the Song Dynasty. Ink wash painting was a favored technique by the literati for its ability to add an atmospheric and even transcendental quality to their paintings of soaring mountain peaks and skies. Chu modernizes this ink wash technique through his use of oil paint, thinning and distilling the medium into transparent, ethereal colors on canvas. Chu was profoundly influenced by Nicolas de Staël, who was known for his use of thickly-painted abstract landscape paintings, as well as the Old Master technique of placing figures atop dark backgrounds to create luminosity. In Summer, 1977, these influences are apparent. Chu highlights the brilliance of his yellow by interspersing it with a deep blue background. The atmospheric effects achieved through the thinning and ‘washing’ of oil paint also hint at an exploration of the spiritual quality of painting.

Wu Guanzhong

  • Wu Guanzhong, Reclining, 1990

    Wu Guanzhong, Reclining, 1990

Wu Guanzhong was the only one out of the ‘Three Musketeers’ to remain in China after his studies in Paris, becoming a key figure in bridging Chinese art and artistic practices in Europe. Wu first turned his attention to art thanks to Chu Teh-Chun. In 1936, he joined both Chu and Zao studying under Fengmian. In 1947, he traveled to Paris to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, where he grew enamored by Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Paul Gauguin. Wu was especially drawn to Van Gogh due to his emotional and expressive renderings. In 1950, he returned to China to teach at the Central Academy of Beijing, initially excited to share his learnings of French Modernism. This was soon met with criticism, as by then Social Realism had become the accepted expression of choice. The formalist practices embraced by Wu were considered to be bourgeois, elite, and ignorant towards the struggles of ordinary people. The criticism came to a dangerous point during the onset of the Cultural Revolution, when Wu was forced to destroy most of his paintings, including the entirety of his nude works to protect himself and his wife. Only after the end of the Cultural Revolution was he able to return to painting and writing about art at leisure. With this newfound freedom, he quickly became a prolific advocate of incorporating abstraction and formalism into Chinese art. Wu was the first Chinese artist to be awarded the Médaille des Arts et Lettres by the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France, and the first living Chinese artist to be given a solo exhibition at the British Museum in London in 1992.

Available in Poly Auction Fusion sale, Reclining is a work completed in 1990 at the height of Wu’s popularity and prestige. The subject matter is decidedly influenced by the works by Gauguin, Picasso, and Modigliani he had observed during his Paris sojourn. Yet instead of turning to the gestural and expressive medium of oil paint like his Western inspirations, he used ink on paper to achieve an effect that still revels in the formal beauty of the female nude. This important work was included in “Nudes in the Twilight,”a solo exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore in 1992, as well as in “The Kite String Will Not Be Broken–Wu Guanzhong’s Classical Artworks Exhibition” at the National Agriculture Exhibition Center in 2011.

Zeng Fanzhi

  • Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1996 No. 6, 1996

    Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1996 No. 6, 1996

Born right at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Zeng Fanzhi’s body of work is crucial to understanding exactly how and why Chinese Art became contemporary in the later half of the 20th century. Unlike his predecessors, who integrated Western methodologies in near real-time to their artistic practice, Zeng transferred styles and ideas of an entirely different historical point in time to create a contemporary vocabulary.

Zeng grew up during the Cultural Revolution and attended the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991, a time when newly-translated art books and literature allowed students to easily learn about Western styles and movements. Long after German Expressionism swept up Central and Western Europe, Zeng discovered the movement through his textbook. Zeng instantly found parallels between his own personal history, and the struggles and turmoil of the German Expressionists that were creating art during the interwar years—a period marked by unease and uncertainty. The influence of this movement would come to define Zeng’s artistic practice and inform a new generation of contemporary Chinese art.

In 1993, Zeng moved to Beijing where he felt he could achieve serious institutional recognition for his work; this was where he began his Mask series which has garnered international acclaim and cemented Zeng as one of the most commercially desired contemporary Chinese artists in today’s market. By the 1990s, China was experiencing rapid economic advancement due to increased foreign investment, and Zeng would notice a swarm of Chinese businessmen and officials dressing themselves in suits and ties, going about their work in the bustling city. Having left his friends and family behind to move to Beijing, the artist could not help but suffer feelings of loneliness and solitude despite being surrounded by people. In this series, Zeng depicts solitary figures in suits or sporting a red kerchief, all of them wearing white masks with blank, empty expressions.

The Poly Auction lot is a rare group portrait that came out of Zeng Fanzhi’s preoccupation with this human condition. Mask Series 1996 No. 6 depicts a group of friends embracing one another, painted in the  striking and symbolic primary colors of red and yellow: red is the color of prosperity, joy, and success; yellow is the color of royalty. Yet the masks that cover the faces of these ‘friends’ highlight the inauthenticity and feigned intimacy that the colors, gestures, and smiles all try to cover up. In 2008, this work set the world record for a piece of Chinese Contemporary Art at auction, ultimately selling for $9.7 million at Christie’s Hong Kong. This record would be shattered once again by Zeng in 2013, with The Last Supper of the same series selling for $23.3 million. To have this important work turn up again is a very rare occurrence in the history of the art market. The significance of this work is only amplified by recent exhibitions at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 2016, and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2013.

Learn more about this seminal work with leading expert in Chinese art and CEO of Poly Auction Macau Sabrina Ho:

Learn more about these six artworks by contacting the Artsy Specialist Team at specialist@artsymail.com.