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Sotheby's Hong Kong To Hold 20th Century Chinese Art Spring Sale 2011 in April
Chu Teh-Chun’s Inspiration Hivernale. Photo: Sotheby's.

HONG KONG.- Sotheby’s Hong Kong 20th Century Chinese Art Spring Sale will be held on 4 April offering a selection of 119 lots estimated at HK$117 million*. The auction will revolve around two major themes - Chinese abstract art and Modern Chinese sculpture – stimulating collectors’ knowledge and interest in these genres. The works featured in the abstract category are rich in cultural history, reflecting the aesthetic ideals and personal conviction of their respective artists. In addition to abstract art, collectors will be provided with an opportunity to acquire outstanding Realist works at the sale.

Sylvie Chen, Head of Sotheby's 20th-Century Chinese Art Department, said: “For this auction, we have brought together important private collections from the United States and Europe, where the seminal works of several Chinese abstract art masters such as Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-Chun are featured. Both masters have built a reputation in the West on the strength of their unique artistic accomplishments. Besides making significant achievements in their own work,in line with the developments of abstract art internationally, they were also forerunners of the genre’s modernisation in China. It is exceptionally rare for so many of their treasured works to appear in the market at the same time.”

The top lot of the sale is Inspiration Hivernale (diptych) (est: HK$20–30 million) by Chu Teh-Chun (b.1920), a master of Chinese Lyrical Abstractionism. Painted between 1987 - 1990, Chu was inspired by the beauty of feathery snowflakes he encountered whilst travelling in the Swiss Alps. Completed at a mature phase of his career, Inspiration Hivernale bears testament to the artist’s emotional outpour through smooth and free-flowing brushstrokes. As though executed in one go, the work unveils the artist’s vision of a snow paradise, rendered with a touch of mystique and lyricism. Chu’s snowscape paintings are rare in number and treasured by true connoisseurs. This painting comes from a private collection in Europe and has not been seen in the market for the past few decades.

Essence Of Realism
Another important work is Chen Yifei’s (1946-2005) Amitié (est. HK$12–18 million), from a private collection in Europe. In the 1980s, the artist had become famous for painting beautiful women. In the 1990s, Chen’s expansion of the subject matter culminated in the Old Dreams of Shanghai Series, in which alluring ladies from the metropolitan Shanghai were depicted.

In this work, Chen employs his classic sfumato (blurring) technique. Through gradual interplays of light and darkness, along with the application of soft, delicate brushstrokes and purplish hues, both the female protagonists emerge into view. The focal point of the painting, determined by Chen’s use of light and compositional arrangement, draws viewers’ attention to its upper portion. Here, the faces of two beautiful women can be clearly seen, both of them dressed in high-collared qipao. The one in front leans forward with her head bowed, allowing the woman behind to tie a yellow pearl flower into her hair. The intimacy between them and their harmonious relationship is suggested in the hand gestures and body language depicted. Blurring the outlines of their lower bodies, Chen creates an illusory sense of space within a frozen moment in time, comparable to freeze screens in films. This painting was on view at the “Chen Yifei: Oeuvres Récentes” Exhibition at Marlborough Monaco in 2003.

Selected for the “Chen Yifei: New Works” Exhibition at Marlborough New York in 1999 was another work by Chen Yifei - Young Tibetans (est. HK$4.5 – HK$6.5 million) – which will also be showcased at the auction. In his first visit to Northern Tibet in 1988, Chen became emotionally drawn to the local lifestyle. Harnessing the experience for artistic inspiration, he started to paint scenes of Tibet. Later in 1990, upon his homecoming from the United States, he repeatedly travelled to Tibet, living among the local people and eventually producing this artwork.

In Young Tibetans, Chen has distorted the figure’s proportions, and emphasised by a dynamic compositional arrangement, this painting conveys Chen’s emotional response to his subject matter. Adopting a dropped perspective, the artist executes an enlarged portrayal of the female protagonist, who occupies two thirds of the canvas space to the left of the painting. This helps to shed light on the status of women and the significance they exert in the matriarchal Tibetan community. A work of exceptional provenance, Young Tibetans stands as a rare and important masterpiece from Chu’s Tibet Series from the 1990s.

Zao Wou-Ki’s Works From Important American And European Private Collections - Unseen In The Market For Half A Century

Five paintings by Zao Wou-ki (b. 1921) from his “Paul Klee” period, which have not appeared in the market for half a century, will also be presented.

Created during his “Paul Klee” period, these compositions combine a realistic style with a spatial approach. Further, Zao’s use of perspective expresses his unique artistic flair. Most representative of the five paintings on offer is Nu et Tapis Jaunes (est. HK$2 - 3.1 million), executed in 1953. This portrait painting harks back to the period of Zao’s artistic growth prior to his departure for France. At the time, Zao had graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou and painted several portraits of his sisters, his wife and himself to hone his compositional techniques. Most of them were, however, destroyed during the 1960s to 1970s and, therefore, this portrait work is especially prized for its rarity. In Nu et Tapis Jaunes, the protagonist has both her hands raised to ear level, seemingly in a bid to detect sounds from afar. The gesture seems to suggest her recollection of antiquity and her selfless devotion. Above her rosy cheeks are eyes that convey a calm, gentle look. A yellow carpet, seemingly glittering in golden light, is painted in a single colour tone of varying intensity to provide a multi-textured backdrop. Revealing a mature mastery of composition, portraiture and ambience, it counts as a rare masterpiece among Zao’s oil portraits.

The late 1950s heralded Zao’s ascension to a new phase in his artistic journey. By then, he had given up the use of signs and allusive symbols to embrace his inner world, in a whole-hearted pursuit of Abstract Expressionism. It is through luminance, colours, force of brushwork and lines that a myriad of the artist’s delicate feelings and explosive passions pours forth in his work. Executed in 1962, 4.1.62 (est. HK$4 – 6 million) marks his coming of age in this transitional phase. Administering base layers of bronze-green hues on canvas, Zao delineates a barren primeval world, born in the turbulence of the universe’s creation, as evoked in the contrast of colours layered upon each other, to dramatic effect. Swift brushstrokes intersperse with layers of darkened lines to unleash dynamic currents of his emotions, through which signs of the artist’s anxiety become readily apparent.

Another masterpiece by Zao is Pins Landais (est. HK$3.2 – 4 million). The title refers to the famous pine trees found in Landes, a province in France, also reputed for its picturesque landscape. Inspired by nature’s beauty, this painting was possibly completed following Zao’s visit to the region. Zao enlivens the composition with shades of red, added in as a contrast to the mass of symbols constructed from black lines. Presenting a world of wilderness in green, the work is highlighted with images of flowing streams, human figures on horseback and birds in flight across a luminescent moon – metaphors that lend themselves to the viewers’ interpretation.

More Highlights
Under the Great Wall (est. HK$ 5 - 6 million) by Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), a legendary figure in 20th century Chinese art, is another much-anticipated lot. Eschewing hyperbolic illustrations, Wu focuses primarily on the rolling mountain range beneath the Great Wall. The wall itself merely comes across as an extension across the painting, from its top right corner to the left. Visually, it appears as nothing more than a fringe across a wide land expanse, drawing beauty from the majestic mountains beneath. Rather than being overawed by the man-made structure, it is obvious that the painter‘s main interest lies in the natural landscape and firm, solid ground beneath his feet. This painting celebrates Wu’s ingenuity in the use of colours. Contrasting with the greyish mist atop the mountain are the spring flowers blooming in a kaleidoscope of pink down below, where tourists can be seen trekking through the paths. Having been kept in a private collection in perfect condition for over ten years, it is indeed a rare occasion for the painting to appear in the market again.

Also of particular note is a masterpiece by Wang Huaiqing (b. 1944) from the 1990s, Portrait of a Stool (est. HK$ 6 - 8 million). Wang’s bold attempt to greatly magnify the image of a traditional Chinese stool is evident here. Almost filling the entire canvas space, it impresses viewers with delicate details of its lines and shapes. The robust wooden structure is delineated in black, with streamlined contours to match. Set against a plain, white backdrop, the stool image delivers an outstanding contrast in colour and shape, to complement the painting’s sleek and clean composition. Portrait of a Stool has been mentioned in several catalogues chronicling Wang’s important works, such as Wang Huaiqing: A Painter’s Painter in Contemporary China published by the Seattle Art Museum in 2010. The sale of this work is likely to draw favourable competition.

Taichi Series (two works) (est. HK$6 - 8 million), a 1990s classic created by Ju Ming (b. 1938), will helm the sculptural art collection at the auction. During the 1970s, Ju took up taichi to strengthen his health and it also turned out to be a fertile source of inspiration for his art. Since 1976, his works from the Taichi Series have drawn critical acclaim in the art market.

Expressing a sense of sublime grandeur and animation, this lot is a study in contrast between strength and grace, between motion and stillness that emanate from a repository of Chinese wisdom in the artist himself. Through a deft execution of striking and cutting with a sharp blade, Ju creates simple representations of taichi figures, eschewing minor details, enabling viewers to soak up the power and irresistible strength they project.

* Estimates do not include buyer’s premium

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