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Dawn of a Sunny Century:
20th-Century Chinese Paintings from the Yitao Collection

16/5/2015 - 17/10/2015


The exhibition features 40 paintings by 13 Chinese Masters of the 20th century selected from Yitao Collection, ranging from Qi Baishi (1864 -1957), Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) to Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) and Jao Tsung I (1917-), some of which are debuting to the public for the first time. It is an exploration of the artists’ journey in quest of realism and innovation during a period of social and political upheaval and cultural integration with the West.

Message from director

Chinese art carries two objectives: presenting visual scenes and projecting artists’ inner feelings. As early as the New Stone Age, artists painted species on pottery with particular preference for snake, frog, and turtle because of their amphibian qualities. Fish inspired them for its ability to swim and live in water and birds for their might to soar under the sun. From early days, Chinese deployed paintings to express their thoughts.

Their special affinity with animals moved the artists to combine bird claws, snake body, fish scales, horse hair, deer horns, and pig nose to form a crocodile-like dragon. It is of course not a real animal with omnipotent powers. Dragon is the earliest form of xie yi, Chinese expressionistic art.

Art about people first appeared on rock surface with daily life as the main theme. Lines used to depict people might be less realistic but that did not detract from the theme. In the absence of photography, artists had to paint how people looked liked, so-called xie zhen, reality portrayal. Apart from just painting individuals, ancient governments employed this medium with a hidden agenda. Kings of various dynasties ordered artists to paint sages, saints, generals, and loyal officials as role models for countrymen to emulate. Hence portraits served not only art but also politics.

Buddhism was prevalent from the beginning of Southern and Northern Dynasties. Stories in painting were used to preach. Themes covered people, mountains, trees, rivers and houses. This started the trend in painting sceneries. In the Tang era, the country was peaceful and prosperous. People liked to venture out to appreciate nature. Through observation, artists painted the view, bringing out the mountains and water realistically.

In the Song era, literati held a special status in the society. Their life aim was to attain officialdom by passing public examinations. When they failed to reach their goal, they escaped reality by insulating themselves deep in the mountains. Because of this, they familiarised themselves with nature, and were able to paint it. Their brush strokes depicted mountains, trees and water, with occasional little bridges, lonely boats, and small houses. They also included themselves, making them the only people in the scenery. They appeared small in the painting, emphasising their disillusion in failure. They thought they had a big heart that could accommodate the world, and great ability that could rule the universe but unfortunately they did not succeed for being at the wrong time. What intended to be realistic scenery painting projected expression of feelings instead and these works were called shan shui hua, mountain and water painting, a unique feature of Chinese culture.

In the Yuan era, literati ruled by Mongolians were very depressed. To ventilate their unhappiness without being persecuted, they focussed on creating realistic art embodying a message. Artists used flowers to portray their inner desires. Painted flowers were not just pretty but imbued with literati’s unique qualities. For example, peony represented nobility, lotus purity, orchid honour, peach blossom perseverance, and chrysanthemum serenity. For these seasonal flowers to appear in the same painting was unreal. The artist’s motive of assembling them was to wish everything propitious, and every dream fulfilled.

Evidently for Chinese from time immemorial, painting carried a purpose. The government wanted to use paintings to teach; people relied on paintings to attain blessing; literati used scenery, flowers and birds to express their superb inner feelings. Chinese painters did not overlook realistic portrayal; they were just more focussed on describing feelings. Their paintings were not abstract; they brought out the thoughts of artists and audience.

In the 19th Century, the West opened China bringing to it western culture. Chinese artists were influenced by western art realism. In the 20th Century, they concentrated on studying western art. Translucent skills emerged in their works. Light and shade were presented in layers and objects were depicted more realistically. It was believed that only when realism was achieved could rapport be built with the audience who would in turn better appreciate the thoughts of the artists.

20th Century Chinese paintings still carried the tradition of ancient art. However confronted with audience’s rising cultural standards, artists could no long rely on traditional art for appeal. While national art materials could continue to be applied, a fresh look in paintings depended on exploring new techniques.

Ancestors were skilled in ink while artists today emphasise on colours. The world is colourful; the more they are applied, the more realism is portrayed. Ancestors preferred made-up scenery while they focus on the foreground. With less meaning embodied, realism in the painting is enhanced.

In the last century, Chinese artists no longer honed in alone on traditional art. By adopting realism techniques, they enlivened Chinese art. Their works projected tradition as well as western art influence. Chinese art and culture have therefore been successfully launched onto the international art arena.

The objective of this Museum is to assess Chinese culture from a new perspective. The Museum formally opens with the exhibition of Dawn of a Sunny Century. In an attempt to introduce Chinese painting from a new angle, it is hoped that visitors to the exhibition will experience art through myriad aspects.

Yeung Chun Tong
February 2015


Exhibition catalogue

Editor: YEUNG Chun Tong
2015, hardcover, Chinese/English, 120 pages, 23 x 31 cm
ISBN: 978-988-14155-0-9

A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue featuring 40 paintings by 13 Chinese masters of the 20th century, such as QI Baishi, ZHANG Daqian, XU Beihong and FU Baoshi.

Price: HKD$150

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