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2024 Spring Auctions > Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art
Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art

Wu Zuoren (1908 – 1997)
Peony(Painted in 1950)

Oil on board

36 × 46 cm. 14 1/8 × 18 1/8 in.

Signed in Chinese and dated on bottom right
26 Jun – 26 Jul 2009, Wu Zuoren Solo Exhibition, Soka Art, Beijing
25 Aug – 20 Sep 2009, Selective Exhibition of Ecole des Beaux – Arts de SOOCHOW, Soka Art, Beijing

Received as a gift directly by original collector from the artist
7 Nov 2004, Huachen Beijing Autumn Auction, Lot 1051
Important Private Collection, Asia

Artistic Integrity, Eternal Essence
Wu Zuoren’s Supreme Hymn to Strength and Beauty

Wu Zuoren stands as a pivotal figure in the development of China’s 20th-century art scene, actively contributing to its expansion and serving as a key advocate. He is widely regarded as a leading figure in both oil painting and ink wash fields following the founding of the People’s Republic of China, embodying a significant role in fostering their advancement. Since 1949, he has held various positions at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, including professor, dean of the oil painting department, vice president, and ultimately serving as the esteemed dean. In 1985, he was appointed as the Chairman of the China Artists Association, cementing his distinguished stature in the art community. His works are collected by national institutions such as the National Art Museum of China and the National Museum of China in Beijing. In his formative years, studying in France and Belgium earned him widespread recognition. In 1984, he was bestowed with the prestigious "Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Ministry of Culture, followed by the esteemed "Crown Level Medal of Honour" by the King of Belgium the following year. Eight years later, he was honored with the "the French Literature and Arts Medal of Honour" by the French Ministry of Culture, enhancing his illustrious reputation internationally.

Throughout his lifetime, he embodied the philosophy of "adapting laws to suit oneself, with art as the essence of life". Through extensive teaching and creative pursuits, he distilled a philosophical outlook emphasizing "selflessness" in life and "individuality" in art, reflecting the zeitgeist of the times. In the upcoming sale, we take great pride in presenting Wu Zuoren’s exquisite portrayal of "beauty" in his work Peony (Lot 59) and the embodiment of "strength" in Nude (Lot 60). Both artworks were masterfully crafted during the artist’s zenith in the 1950s, showcasing his ability to draw inspiration from both the past and present, and to express it with unparalleled sophistication. The provenance of the works is well-documented. Nude comes from the private collection of the artist’s family, last seen at auction 25 years ago. Meanwhile, Peony was directly gifted by the artist to its original collector, and it has been over two decades since its last public appearance. Their reunion in this auction is a rare and extraordinary event.

Exploring Intricacies, the Poetic Beauty of the Human Body

"Figure painting" is one of Wu Zuoren’s areas of expertise. In 1931, while studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium as a foreign student at the age of just 23, he garnered the highest accolades of the academy with his oil painting titled Male Body, earning him both the Gold Medal and the laurel wreath of excellence. This was the highest honor bestowed by the academy. Subsequently, he delved deeper into portraying the human body, producing remarkable works such as Boat Trackers, Back Setting Nude and After Courbet’s ‘Spring’. Drawing from his experiences in Northern Europe, he skillfully juxtaposed the radiant warmth of his subjects against the stark, icy backdrop, employing chiaroscuro techniques reminiscent of the Renaissance era. This approach set him apart from the Soviet-influenced grayscale aesthetics prevalent in China at that time, establishing his unique artistic identity. In the 1950s, Wu Zuoren’s artistic prowess reached its zenith. His extensive travels and immersive sketching expeditions across vast landscapes inspired a lyrical quality in his creations. This also imbues his figure paintings with a more poetic demeanor. Notably, the creation of Nude during this period exemplifies his exquisite craftsmanship, showcasing his ability to convey "intricate details with simplicity and profound significance".

Radiant Pearls and Gleaming Jade, Infused with Dedication and Passion

Diverging from the Western academic tradition’s pursuit of perfection and meticulous refinement, Wu Zuoren’s approach in this masterpiece diverges. Through bold brushstrokes, he faithfully captures the woman in the painting with a sense of vitality, portraying her full-bodied figure and the expression of looking back and glancing sideways. Drawing upon the bold contrasts characteristic of Dutch Golden Age masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer, Wu Zuoren employs them in a multifaceted integration. In the artwork, one can observe the utilization of up to five different types of fabrics meticulously arranged: carpet, canvas, tablecloth, shading cloth, and shawl. The nuanced differences in texture, colour, and play of light and shadow mirror the variations observed in different parts of the human body under various light sources——such as cheeks, wrists, elbows, and buttocks——accentuated with subtle hints of red. The paler tones of the torso contrast with deeper hues on the feet, calves, and face, while shadows at light source junctions are rendered with a grayish-green hue, seamlessly blending warm and cool colours. The result is a protagonist gleaming like precious gems, embodying the authentic power of human beauty. Within the dynamic natural setting, Wu Zuoren deftly encapsulates the poetic and graceful essence unique to women through the most natural and intimate visual expression, thereby etching his contribution into the annals of Chinese art history.

A Tale of Profound Devotion, the Heartfelt Message of Peonies

Crafted in 1950, Peony stands as one of Wu Zuoren’s timeless masterpieces, with only seven known to exist throughout his illustrious career. Among his oeuvre, peonies hold a special significance, appearing most frequently and abundantly. This particular work not only reflects his fondness and attachment but also carries profound meanings. Two years before creating Peony in 1948, Wu Zuoren married the esteemed artist Xiao Shufang. Hailing from an intellectual family, Xiao Shufang herself excelled in painting, particularly in elegantly capturing floral themes, including the beloved "peony". Their bond traces back to their youthful days in 1928, and after 16 years of separate journeys, they reunited at an art exhibition in 1946. Their union, marked by mutual inspiration and unwavering support, became a harmonious lifelong partnership. Peonies, symbolizing "unwavering sincerity", beautifully encapsulate the enduring love shared between the couple. It is conceivable that Wu Zuoren used this artwork to convey the profound affection between him and his wife, a sentiment that undoubtedly resonates deeply with viewers.

Wealth and Nobility Naturally Arise, Standing Tall as Inherent Gifts

In the painting, the peony flower blooms with elegance and transcendent beauty within an indigo celestial vase. The artist skillfully employs backlighting, strategically placing shadows to create the illusion of self-illumination emanating from the flower’s core, casting a luminous glow across the serene chamber. This technique reflects Wu Zuoren’s study of the Flemish School during his time in Europe. Deliberately using a dark brown backdrop, he infuses the composition with a classical warm tone, accentuating the contrast between warm and cool hues and highlighting the top lighting effect while softening the distinction between flowers, leaves, and vase, achieving a harmonious structural unity. For instance, the horizontal line of the tabletop resonates with the horizontal green branches, while the spherical flower vase juxtaposes the circular white peony blooms, epitomizing a profound sense of "heightened equilibrium" typical of classical still life. In terms of brushwork, he transcends the hyperrealistic details of traditional still life, employing a technique imbued with "expressive realism", characterized by loose, natural, and ink-like flowing strokes. Through this approach, he unveils a subtle Eastern beauty, encapsulating an infinite inner spiritual power within the delicate hues of the flowers. The artwork masterfully presents the peony flower’s innate qualities of "wealth, nobility and beauty" in a unique and graceful manner, radiating with brilliance, serenity, and restrained elegance, thereby embodying a distinctive style.

Price estimate:
HKD: 700,000 – 1,000,000
USD: 89,400 - 127,700

Auction Result:
HKD: 3,240,000



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