Re-visiting Twentieth-Century Chinese Oil Paintings

Captain of the Ship ‘Lord Clarendon’
Yungu Villa
Palace in the Sun
Pottery Jar
Tibetan Girl
Four Seasons
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Oil paintings are often considered through a Western lens. To shake up this view and invite new perspectives, Hong Kong University’s Museum and Art Gallery, HKU, showcases the versatile nature of Chinese oil paintings in its aptly named exhibit, Across Time and Space. With works exploring sprawling landscapes, intimate interiors and evocative profiles, the exhibition opens discussion and reflection on cross-cultural experiences. With forty-seven pieces on display, the collection blends work belonging to the university, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and private owners. Curated by Chinese paintings and transcultural art market specialist Dr Shuo Hua, the themes running through the exhibition show the active discourse between Eastern and Western sentiment in the arts.

Reverse Glass Painting

The collection begins with a reverse glass painting titled Captain of the Ship ‘Lord Clarendon’. A popular media form between the seventeenth and early nineteenth century, its establishment in Chinese art culture was spurred by European introduction by traders and diplomats offering gifts to the imperial court. A glass painting’s unique look is borne of complex layering that runs counter to the typical oil painting procedure, with the artist beginning at the highlights and ending at the base layers. Initially made in Canton’s painting studios, eighteenth-century glass paintings were a prolific art form in China.

Ng Po-wan: Fruits

In the first room, a fair amount of the subject matter focuses on people, objects and hobbies of the middle class. Ng Po-wan’s Fruits is a standout example. Dynamic in its execution, the light and layering of the portrait are reminiscent of the Dutch master painter Rembrandt. While the clear, simple lines, rich tones and structural focus echo Western works, the fruit of choice marks the artist’s regionality. Typically, fruit portraiture was a unique form of wealth signalling; in the seventeenth century, pineapples were such a hot commodity that people would even rent them for clout, hence their prevalence in fruit-laden artwork. However, in Ng’s work, the more pedestrian carambola (star fruit) and tomatoes take centre stage. This calls back to his time at the University of the Philippines, where he studied painting with the renowned “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art”, Fernando Amorsolo.

Liu Haisu: Yungu Villa

Moving into the next viewing area, the audience is invited to join in the introspection of nature. Setting the stage is an entire wall dedicated to prolific twentieth-century Chinese painter Liu Haisu. Following his series on the Yellow Mountains of Anhui province, Yungu Villa neatly summarises his myriad accomplishments. Created during Liu’s tenth visit to the site in 1988, the occasion marked the seventieth anniversary of his very first trip there. The spontaneous blend of villa and nature highlights technical fluency and expressive spirit, the signature marks of Liu’s oil studies. By creating an oil painting with the approach of Chinese calligraphy and splashed ink, Liu’s coarse outlines represent a spirit of resilience. The eponymous villa was where the painter stayed during his visit, bearing the typical characteristics of Huizhou architecture. Liu’s addition of pine trees represents self-discipline and fortitude.

Mao Huaiqing: Palace in the Sun

Shifting from abstract to more authentic perspectives, Mao Huaiqing presents a romantic interior. Created in 1990, Palace in the Sun shows an inner courtyard deep within the imperial palace. The landmark’s traditional architecture is divided diagonally into warm walls, a clear sky at the top right, and cool greys at the bottom left. Here, a phrase corresponding to a famous line from An Exquisite Zither by Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin is displayed in Yan-style calligraphy. Much akin to theatrical staging, Mao would go on to serve as a production designer for numerous historical television series.

Yin Xiong: Pottery Jar

The adage “more than meets the eye” perfectly fits Yin Xiong’s Pottery Jar. The portrait depicts the painter’s delicate and perceptive nature and captures the nuances of ancient Chinese Han pottery. While delving into Yin’s playful layering, viewers can explore the distinctions between sculpture and painting. The longer one looks, the more delicate notes and subtle textures reveal themselves. In direct conversation with Yin’s piece is Leng Jun’s photorealistic Coconut on a Canvas (1993). Although the piece utilises similar colours, its warmer tones contrast Yin’s cooler ones. Pitting the themes of modernism and traditionalism, as well as control and absurdity, Leng’s contradictory composition reflects his concerns with 1990’s urbanisation and consumerism, implicitly expressing subjective feelings towards objective matters.

Wang Zhijie: Tibetan Girl

The tone shifts to intimate scenes, which also demonstrate the advances taking place in contemporary Chinese art. From afar, Wang Zhijie’s Tibetan Girl evokes a fond nostalgia typically associated with antique photographs. The image captured is a half-naked girl basking under the warm spring sun, arms raised above her head as she wraps her jet-black hair into a bun. The lighting provides a soft glow to the stone wall behind her. The artist, a native of Jingde in Anhui province, was the country’s first professional artist following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. While Wang’s portrait leans into realism, Liu Haisu’s Young Lady of Paris (1981) shows clear inspiration from French art academies. As one of China’s first art educators, Liu significantly influenced modern Chinese art by promoting female artists and introducing the controversial practice of nude life figure drawing to the Shanghai Art Academy.

Lee Joseph: Four Seasons

The next room bursts with vibrancy. In a fine show of the ever-evolving conversation between nature and time, Lee Joseph’s Four Seasons (1997) elicits a sense of nostalgia. Each season is shown at its peak, with tiny human figurines for scale. Refined brushwork, pastel colours and hazy atmospheres convey Joseph’s subtle feelings of sorrow and his inner attachment to the land. He also employs different formal elements such as dots, lines and planes to evoke seasonal changes and the concept of time through the variations of nature. Born in wartime Hong Kong, in his youth, Joseph moved to Macau and later emigrated to Vancouver. His experience of war and life in foreign lands had a lasting influence on his artistic creation. Maintaining a distance from daily reality, Joseph’s works offer freedom from everyday issues.

Oil painting introduction to Chinese art academies

The early twentieth century introduced oil painting into Chinese art academies. Over time, it has become an essential feature and an increasingly popular medium. It also has an ongoing discourse between time and paint. With oil paint sometimes taking weeks to dry, there is a level of experimentation available to the artist, the ability to go back in time and alter the outcome. In addition, the mutability of an oil painting can mimic shifting views about the subject matter. Through multiple layers of paint and dynamically charged brushstrokes, portraits allow artists and viewers alike to travel through history with a glance.

Text & photos by Victoria Mae Martyn