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Sotheby's to offer two masterpieces from the Collection of Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten
Zeng Fanzhi’s (b. 1964) large-format work - The Last Supper, 2001, oil on canvas, 220 x 400 cm. Photo: Sotheby's.

HONG KONG.- Sotheby’s announced that it has once again been entrusted by Baron and Baroness Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten, renowned collectors and philanthropists based in Switzerland, to present to the market two important Chinese masterpieces – Red Flag 1 (1971), an important political realist work by Chen Yifei, and The Last Supper (2001), one of the most significant works by contemporary Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi. These two major works will be sold on Saturday, 5 October 2013 in Hong Kong as part of the Sotheby’s Hong Kong 40th Anniversary Evening Sale, which features an exceptionally strong assembly of works. Each of the works from the Collection is imbued with great political and cultural significance, and represents a significant achievement within the career of each artist. Appearing for the first time at auction, and having been exhibited in many major exhibitions, these two masterpieces’ appearance provides an unprecedented opportunity for discerning collectors worldwide to acquire acknowledged icons of modern and contemporary Chinese art.

Baron and Baroness Guy Ullens de Schooten are passionate about the development of contemporary art in China, and have been pioneering supporters of young emerging artists for the last 25 years. The art collection assembled by the couple is one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of its kind, spanning a range of periods, schools and movements as well as media. It encapsulates the evolution of creative ideologies and artistic dialogues in modern and contemporary Chinese art from 1970s until today. The Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation was established in Switzerland in 2002, sponsoring exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art in Europe and China and loaning works of art from their collection to museums worldwide. Since then, the Collection has expanded and diversified, and it now consists of nearly 1,000 works of art, not only from China, but also from many other regions around the world, with a special focus on emerging contemporary artists from China, Asia, the United States and the Middle East.

The Ullens also continue their unwavering commitment to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), a non-profit art center which they founded in 2007 in the heart of Beijing’s 798 Art District, providing a vital exhibition platform for Chinese artists. Since its foundation five years ago, UCCA has hosted over 1,000 educational and cultural public programmes, and welcomed over three million visitors. The Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation and UCCA are two separate independent organisations.

Patti Wong, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, said: “Sotheby’s has had a long history of collaborating with Guy and Myriam Ullens, including most notably the two record-breaking sales of property from The Ullens Collection in Hong Kong in 2011. This year in 2013, as we celebrate our 40th anniversary in Asia, we are very privileged and honoured to be entrusted once again by the Ullens with the sale of two highly important works – Chen Yifei’s rare political realist work, Red Flag 1, and one of the most important works by Zeng Fanzhi, The Last Supper – each of which represents not only the visualisation of the Chinese nation’s history through works of art, but also the Ullens’ vision and passion for Chinese art from different periods. The unprecedented offering of these two exemplary museum-quality works at this Evening Sale will undoubtedly present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the international collecting community to acquire such exceptional masterpieces.”

Laurence de Failly, Director of The Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation said: "The Ullens Collection is one of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary Chinese art which has been built up over the past 30 years. The focus has always been to support young emerging artists. Occasionally we sell works to other passionate collectors in order to make many significant acquisitions of work by younger artists. The sale of these two works is part of this process."

Chen Yifei (1946 – 2005) Red Flag 1, oil on canvas, 1971, 300 x 158.5 cm. Est. HK$45 – 60 million / US$5.8 – 7.7 million

Paintings featuring political and revolutionary subject matter are extremely limited in renowned Chinese realist master Chen Yifei’s oeuvre, and very rarely appear on the market. Red Flag and other political works created by Chen between 1970 and 1979 characterise a unique moment in the early stages of the artist’s development. While Chen became well-known and his works highly sought after later in life, he was actually well-established as a young artist in China in his 20s before leaving for the US in the 1980s. Red Flag executed in 1971 is thus a perfect manifestation of his achievement in the early chapter of the artist’s life. Because of the history, political and cultural importance of these works today, the majority of them are now held in museum collections across China, making the appearance of this work at auction an important event for collectors.

In 1970, Chen Yifei had established himself well in Shanghai, becoming the director of the oil painting and sculpture department of the Shanghai Art Institute at the young age of 24. Between 1970 and 1979, Chen produced a number of epic paintings with political themes, among them Pathbreaker, a collaboration with Wei Jingshan, currently part of the collection of the National Art Museum of China, the subject work Red Flag 1, and its companion work Red Flag 2 which is currently in the collection of the Shanghai Oil Painting & Sculpture Institute Art Museum, Eulogy of the Yellow River, now in a private collection, and Seizing of the Presidential Palace, now in the collection of The Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution.

The present large-format Red Flag 1 executed in 1971 is steeped in Russian Socialist Realism style, which exerted a dominating influence over the Chinese art scene at the time, serving as the basis of artistic training for Chen before he went abroad. It depicts soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army raising a red flag inside a trench, preparing to charge forward and commence an attack. Its companion work, Red Flag 2, portrays a group of youthful students making a vow before The Monument to the People’s Heroes in Beijing.

Instead of celebrating the war and putting a positive light on armed conflict – as most Chinese artists did in conforming to ideology directives in expressing political themes – in Red Flag 1 Chen focused on revealing the brutality and tragedies behind the battles waged in real life and the heroism they promoted. In the foreground is the leader of a guerilla troop, a rifle firmly grasped in his right hand and a red flag in the other. To his left is another soldier carrying a bag of explosives, his face discoloured and uniform soiled from perennial exposure to fire and explosion smoke on the warfront. This was clearly a daring and groundbreaking move at the time as Chen Yifei had defied the imposed ideology to forge his own style. Besides Chen’s overall vivid depiction of characters and the prevailing solemn atmosphere on the battlefield, one can also appreciate his dramatic portrayal of the protagonists with the chiaroscuro technique, calling to mind the treatment of light and darkness in Old Masters paintings.

Red Flag 1 held great significance for Chen. When the artist left China for the US in the 1980s, the present work was one of the few paintings he took with him. It was later prominently exhibited at the artist’s major retrospective exhibition at the Shanghai Museum in 1996.

Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964) The Last Supper, oil on canvas, 2001, 220 x 400 cm
The present monumental work by the artist, The Last Supper, represents the height of Zeng’s artistic development. Executed in 2001, The Last Supper is the largest work in Zeng’s renowned Mask series. Painted on a single canvas measuring 4 metres wide and 2.2 metres high, the work comes from the most mature period of the Mask series, and fully represents the epitome of contemporary Chinese art. The painting was acquired by Baron and Baroness Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten in the year after its creation, and has remained in their collection until now.

Zeng’s The Last Supper was inspired by the painting of the same title by the Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, which is considered to represent the beginning of the High Renaissance period. The original mural work, measuring at almost 9 metres long, situates in the refectory at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. The scene focuses on the last supper between Jesus and his twelve disciples before Jesus’ eventual arrest by the Roman guards. It was during this meal that Jesus foretold his betrayal by one of his disciples, Judas. The original work precisely captures the shocking reaction of the whole group asides from Judas, who remains in the shadow, creating a stark contrast with Jesus in the middle.

In the present The Last Supper, all the religious figures have been replaced by masked Young Pioneers with red scarfs, who appear to be eating watermelons at the dining table. It can be seen as a metaphor to the rapid economic development in China, while the red scarfs represent the ideal of Communism. Looking closely, replacing the figure of Judas from the original work is a masked figure wearing a golden yellow tie. For Zeng, this would signify the dream of moving away from the Communist ideal in the new age. He once expressed, “The golden yellow tie represents money, and in essence, Western capitalism. It is only after the 1980s that we began to see people wearing ties in China”. The symbolism of the tie undoubtedly pinpoints the ongoing changes within the Chinese society. The Chinese calligraphic scrolls on the two walls as well as the acute red hues of the watermelon both suitably represent the Chinese nation. The Last Supper boldly encapsulates the transforming fabric of the Chinese society during the economic reform in the 1990s, and ultimately stands as perhaps the most representative work in the history of contemporary Chinese art.

The artist moved from Wuhan to the flourishing art hub, Beijing, in the early 1990s and began to work on the Mask series in 1994. Spanning ten years, the series explores the state of human existence and reveals the need for a deceptive appearance in the modern society as represented by the stylised mask. Through this series, the artist has documented the psychological distress of the Chinese population under the ten-year long economic reforms in China. In terms of technique, the Mask series saw a transformation from an overall brown colour palette of the 1990s to the more refined artistic style in the 2000s. The figures’ styles are precisely controlled, and imbued with a sense of tragedy, making the Mask series not only the most renowned body of work by Zeng Fanzhi, but also the most sought-after series in the contemporary Chinese art market today.

As works of this calibre only rarely come to the market, it is difficult to predict The Last Supper’s value. However, given that the current record auction price for Zeng Fanzhi, achieved for a painting from the Mask series, is HK$75,367,500 / US$9,660,023***, it is expected that this unique work will realise in excess of HK$80 million / US$10.3 million.

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