A Solitary Eagle Soaring into the Rainbow Prices for Paintings by SHIY De-jinn Set to Rise
When talking about the transformation and modernization of Chinese painting, and in particular the role played in this process by teachers and artists at the Hangzhou National College of Art, the names of such masters as Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu, Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun, Wu Guanzhong, and Chao Chun-hsiang will inevitably be mentioned. But there is another artist from that school that very much deserves our attention, a man who, in addition to exploring and painting Taiwan’s beautiful countryside and coastal areas, spent years traveling and studying in the United States and France, visited the major art museums and galleries of Europe, and produced numerous masterpieces throughout his career. He used the best years of his life to support the development of abstract art, promote folk art, advocate concepts such as the preservation of cultural and historical relics, work on an artistic fusion of watercolor and ink techniques, and capture the appeal of Taiwan’s natural scenery in traditional-style landscape painting. Who is this painter that is nothing short of a modern master? We are talking about Shiy De-jinn, a natural-born artist with a most distinctive style. Some have called him “Taiwan’s van Gogh,” and he is also known as
the island’s first and probably most famous openly gay painter. His artistic achievement and important status are recently gaining increased recognition in the art market, with many collectors dubbing him “one of Lin Fengmian’s five greatest disciples.”
During his time in France (1963-1966), Shiy made the acquaintance of Sanyu, another free spirit and unconventional artist, who by that time had already lived in Paris for more than 40 years without returning to his native land even once. Both painters hailed from Sichuan Province, both had been handsome, suave, and sophisticated youths who chose to leave the stifling circumstances of family and marriage to seek their luck abroad: Sanyu in the City of Light, and Shiy in Formosa. In Paris, they became good friends, and when Shiy eventually returned to Taiwan, he left the impoverished Sanyu a thick pullover, and also vowed to write his biography and introduce him to a wider audience. But only three months later, Sanyu died in a gas leak at his studio, aged 65. Shiy’s life would turn out to be even shorter, as he passed away in 1981, a victim of pancreatic cancer at 58.
For all their urbane lifestyles and debonair attitudes, both painters had shared a rather solitary nature, coupled with a single-minded pursuit of aesthetic integrity and considerable artistic talent. Both died without offspring, yet fortunately still left behind many children: their paintings, some of them very valuable, have been preserved to this day. In the case of Sanyu, a considerable number of them remain in the collection of the National Museum of History in Taiwan.
In 1964, Sanyu sent 49 of his major oil paintings from Paris to Taiwan for a planned exhibition, and after his death, the entire lot came into the possession of the National Museum of History in a roundabout way. Meanwhile, Shiy De-jinn had decreed in his will that after his death, the 10 best of each his oil paintings and watercolors should be bequeathed to the newly built Taipei Fine Arts Museum—most of these oil paintings were portraits, while the watercolors were post-1975 landscapes. According to his will, apart from the above-mentioned pieces, Shiy left behind a total of 1840 works (including 130 oil paintings, 481 watercolors, 237 ink on papers, 34 calligraphies, 8 pastels, and 968 sketches) that were to stay together in one place. As a result, Shiy’s close friends set up the Shiy De-jinn Foundation, which donated the entire lot to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung. Today, the Museum’s collection boasts as many as 1867 of Shiy’s works, making it by far the largest and most representative of its kind. Furthermore, under the aegis of Foundation members, a complete catalog of Shiy’s works was published, as well as a research exhibition held on the artist’s oeuvre. Also, Shiy’s well-known 1956 painting “The Goose Seller” represented Taiwan at the Sao Paulo Art Biennial, while 5 of his watercolor landscapes and 47 of his sketches were later made a part of the National Museum of History’s permanent collection.
Shiy’s whole life was devoted to the pursuit of art. A less lavish and more diligent painter than Sanyu, Shiy, like his friend, had to overcome hardships and difficulties to stay focused on his painting. It is only thanks to his sheer determination that he managed to produce so many beautiful works of poetic appeal. He poured his soul into his paintings, and might have given us even more had fate and illness not hampered an even fuller realization of his talent. When Shiy passed away in 1981, poet Yu Kwang-chung declared, full of sadness, “Taipei is empty without you.” And it was not just Shiy the artist that friends and colleagues missed, but also Shiy the educator, a highly revered teacher who had done so much in his short life to promote art and art education.
In 2013 — Shiy would have been 90 years old — his status on the art market is still not commensurate with his high critical standing. Consequently, many collectors and aficionados feel that his work is seriously undervalued. Shiy was a loner who had a stubborn side: once the renowned Taiwan-born entrepreneur Kyu Eikan wanted to buy paintings from him, but the negotiations turned sour, and in his exasperation Kyu declared, “There won’t be any of your works in my museum in Taiwan!” Shiy, undaunted, replied, “If there are none of my paintings in your museum, it doesn’t deserve to be called a ‘museum’ in Taiwan!” This little anecdote reveals quite a bit of the artist’s outspoken and uncompromising character. In the end, Kyu still managed to buy one of Shiy’s watercolor landscapes, and when Shiy passed away not much later, he regretted not having been able to collect more of his work. Today, there can be no doubt about Shiy’s importance for, and contributions to, the development of the fine arts in Taiwan.
Ten years ago, Chu Kuo-jen penned a column titled “Shiy De-jinn: Prices in the Doldrums,” lamenting the continued under-appreciation of Shiy’s work. Ten years later, prices have picked up somewhat, by 10-20%. Still, this cannot reflect his works’ true value, especially when we look at the prices, often dozens of times higher, paid for paintings by his friends or contemporaries, such as Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-chun. When Shiy’s oil painting “Youth of Seashore” sold for NT$8.26 million (US$254,702) at a Dec 2012 auction in Taipei, it was enough to mark a new auction record for a painting by the artist.
Many market insiders are painfully aware that Shiy De-jinn’s paintings (through which the artist very much wanted to transcend the achievement of someone like Xu Beihong) continue to be undervalued. Many years ago, market expectations for Shiy’s oeuvre were optimistic, yet insufficient circulation of his works and occasional problems with counterfeit paintings left prices for his lots trailing far behind those of Zao Wou-ki, Wu Guanzhong, and even Chu Teh-chun.
Yet Shiy was fortunate in that he had quite a few friends and colleagues who supported his career, organized exhibitions, and made sure he had a dignified funeral, complete with memorial monument and dedicated resting place. They also set up the Shiy De-jinn Foundation, which has done much for the recognition of Shiy’s art and genius. During his lifetime, some of his closest friends also sponsored him financially, buying a number of the artist’s important later works. On June 2, Ravenel’s Taipei Spring Auction will put on offer 23 of Shiy’s rare and valuable works from collections of his friends, as well as 3 paintings by his teachers Lin Fengmian and Guan Liang, works that Shiy owned and treasured. This special auction includes major works, such as the 1951 and earliest “Self-Portrait” (one of only 4 self-portraits in oil by Shiy), the 1963 “Double Self Portraits” previously (2004) sold at auction by the Yageo Foundation, and another two items currently in the collection of Taiwan National Art Museum. Also of interest for collectors of 20th century Western-style art by Chinese painters are Shiy’s monumental ink and color works “Wu-ling,” “Autumn,” and “Landscape of Lan-yu,” his watercolors “Ducks in the Pond” and “Begonia,” the calligraphic work “The Poem Man Jiang Hong in Ruming Script” and many others.
Shiy’s outstanding aptitude for painting portraits is widely acknowledged. He once said, “Painting portraits is not about outer appearances, but capturing a person’s character and mood.” And, “A good portrait painter see right into your soul. He knows how to capture your very nature, and conveys your temperament and spirit through your subtlest facial expressions.” Shiy’s portraits of male and female classmates back at the Hangzhou National College of Art show a strong influence of Italian Renaissance painter Botticelli and mentor Lin Fengmian’s style, though some impressionism and Matisse’s Art Deco can also be discerned. His “Self-Portrait” from his time teaching at Chiayi Senior High School, however, displays broad, solid brushstrokes reminiscent of Cézanne, as well as a touch of Picasso’s blue period gloominess.
After coming from Chiayi to Taipei, Shiy made a living by taking commissions for portraits, often from celebrities and socialites. Today, these paintings may serve as a record of the tastes and culture of upper class in 1960s Taiwan. During his time in Paris, he sketched from life in the streets of Montmartre and did a number of foreign portraits and landscape sketches. He also held a solo exhibition. After seeing the works of Rembrandt and van Gogh in Dutch museums, he felt even more inspired to create a record of people and things around him. Upon his return to Taiwan, he focused on painting rural people and sceneries, becoming one of the exponents of the Native Movement, while also doing portraits of other artists and writers.
China’s modernization and reform movements left a deep impression on Shiy during the early years of his arts education, and he remained devoted to innovation and originality throughout his career. Yet his years in the United States and Europe also made him realize the necessity for a return to the roots of his own culture, in particular as preserved in folk arts and traditional genres of Chinese painting. Strongly attracted to everyday aesthetics and cultural heritage, Shiy late in life became involved in the protection and preservation of Taiwan’s traditional architecture and historical relics, contributing much to the wider promotion of these concepts. In his art, he now put a clear emphasis on local landscapes, flowers, animals, buildings, customs, and snapshots of daily life. As Chiang Hsun, Master of Aesthetics from Taiwan, put it, “Shiy De-jinn captures the appeal of Taiwan’s natural scenery in traditional-style landscape painting.”
Shiy once said, “Watercolor doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined: can’t we simply agree that the Song Dynasty splash-ink technique is also a kind of watercolor painting? The only real difference is that Chinese painting mostly uses black ink, even for most colored objects.” He was fond of the ink wash style, merging ink and watercolor to create a novel and vibrant effect that combines the linear, calligraphic beauty of traditional literati painting with the rich palette of watercolors, and vice versa. After 1969, Shiy spent much time practicing calligraphy, which helped him to become even more adept at spatial composition and drawing natural, smoothly flowing lines. By treating watercolor and ink wash painting as complementary media, and fusing them into a new and fresh form, Shiy, particularly during his last decade, made a major and highly influential contribution to Chinese watercolor, imbuing it with unprecedented brilliance, deep thought, poignant emotion, and creative genius.
Although he has been dubbed “one of Lin Fengmian’s five greatest disciples,” compared to the works by other members of that school, Shiy’s paintings have so far been underperforming. Lots by Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun, Wu Guanzhong and even Chao Chun-hsiang, whose work is less widely circulated, have all recorded top prices of around NT$22 million (HK$ 5,703,500 or US$735,935). But as some of Shiy De-jinn’s most representative works are about to hit the market, we may be confident that the current price record of NT$8.26 million will soon be broken.
Shiy was a prolific artist, much more so than for example Sanyu, and the number of his works in private hands is not smaller than that of the legendary Western-style paintress Pan Yuliang. It would thus be only normal for prices to rise and truly reflect the fact that his artistic style and influence are just as great as Sanyu and Pan’s.
To make this happen, it is essential that some of Shiy’s most important works find their way into auctions, which is why I have been urging some of the artist’s close friends to put up for sale some of their most treasured and rarely displayed valuable paintings by Shiy (often in private hands since over 30 years), and give some other aficionados and collectors a chance to acquire authentic works by their favorite painter. At present, estimated prices for single ink wash works by Shiy range from NT$100,000 to NT$1,000,000: real bargains when you consider that works on paper by Zao Wou-ki, Wu Guanzhong, or Chu Teh-chun can cost dozen of times as much.
Shiy De-jinn was a romantic at heart, a man who painted the things he loved: himself in love, his friends, and the beautiful sceneries he encountered in Taiwan and abroad. He greatly admired the Indian poet Tagore’s romanticism, using one of his best-known lines in a painting, “Let life be beautiful like summer flowers and death like autumn leaves.” Shiy loved life, and strove to savor it to the fullest and express its beauty through painting. In particular towards the end of his life, he went beyond purely representative art, aiming to convey emotions and impressions directly through color and form. Personally, I believe that artistic greatness cannot ultimately be quantified by money. Then again, Shiy’s wonderful oeuvre deserves more attention and recognition, and auction prices should reflect the achievement of this unique artist, born in Sichuan 90 years ago this year.