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SHIY De-jinn's Portraits and Landscapes: A Glimpse of the Artist's World and Life

 Text / Odile Chen
 
(Ravenel Quarterly issue No. 7 November 2013)
 



White Glove Auction
 
In Taiwan politics, “white gloves” may have unsavory connotations, but in the auction market they describe the most successful event one can host: an auction where every last item on offer finds a buyer. When this happens, the auctioneers will be presented with a pair of white gloves to mark their achievement. Such a white glove auction took place on June 2, 2013 in Taipei: the Special Auction of Works by Shiy De-jinn. To much applause and cheer, a total of 23 works by the artist and 3 paintings by his teacher were sold, one of which, the “Self-Portrait” that the artist painted when he was 28 years old, set a new price record for a work by Shiy, NT$22.8 million (US$770,000). All the other lots, including ink and wash paintings, watercolors, and calligraphies, also established new milestones.

The auction had been commissioned by Mr. L, Shiy’s close friend and one of the founders of the Shiy De-jinn Foundation. The fact that the works came from his collection of over 30 years meant that there wasn’t the slightest doubt about the entire lots’ provenance, not to mention the fact that many of the pieces were particularly rare and attractive. Unsurprisingly, the auction created a big stir long in advance, and many senior collectors visited the auction preview to examine outstanding works that had long been kept out of sight of the public. The complete lot of 26 works had a pre-auction estimate of about NT$24.8 million (US$838,060). It sold for a total of NT$86 million (US$2.9 million), more thanthree times the anticipated value. It was a landmark event for Shiy De-jinn artwork, greatly increasing his oeuvre’s standing and value on the international art market.

The “Self-Portrait” sold for more than five times the original estimate, a result that underlines the superior quality of Shiy’s early portraiture. His late monumental work “Wu-ling,” brimming with the artist’s passion for life, created a new global record for an ink wash work at NT$7.8 million (US$260,000). Shiy, who had traveled widely around Taiwan, painted many landscapes in his late years that combined the imposing air of traditional Chinese landscape and the solid magnificence of oil painting with the smooth elegance of watercolor and theethereal panache of ink and wash, all subtly punctuated by the sophisticated elegance of lively calligraphic lines. The result was modern Chinese paintings full of tragic greatness and diffident serenity.

In recent years, modern ink and wash painting is enjoying increasing popularity on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Shiy’s works are profiting from this trend: collectors have begun to pay attention to his works that offer a unique and original combination of Eastern and Western styles. Shiy was one of the most brilliant students of Lin Fengmian at the Hangzhou National College of Art, and it is only natural that his splendid works, not least in the ink and wash department, should now be much sought after by aficionados and collectors of modern Chinese painting.

In the current issue of our Art and Investment column, we will offer a detailed introduction into the two main genres of Shiy’s painting, with portraiture dominating his early years and landscapes more prominent in his later career. In both subjects, Shiy’s deep love for Taiwan—its land and its people, its cultural and natural landscapes—found ample expression, making his oeuvre an important witness of its times and background. In his landscape work in particular, Shiy captures something of a people’s road towards modernization, all the while declaring his love for Taiwan’s countryside with its down-home way of life. However, it is in his depictions of people, and especially in his portraits, that we can most clearly trace the development of the artist’s individual style. Analyzing Shiy’s total output as collected in The Commemorative Collections of Shiy De-jinn Oil Painting, published by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, art historians discovered that portraits and other depictions of people constitute roughly a third of the artist’s work, with the preferred media being oil paintings and sketches or drawings. However, most of these works are now part of museum collections, and very few of them ever surface on the art market.

 


 

A Proficient Painter of Portraits
 
In 2003, the National Museum of History held a special exhibition to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the artist’s passing. Called “Spiritual Realism: A Selection of Shiy De-jinn’s Portraits,” it presented his portraiture as a record of the shifts and changes marking the development of art in 20th-century Taiwan. Shiy has been praised as “the most artistic of Taiwan’s post-war painters” and “Taiwan’s most proficient portrait painter,” and indeed he received most of his early recognition for his portraiture. Later on, critics and audiences tended to focus on his creative contributions to landscape painting, so today it may be time to remind people of his equally exceptional skills as a portrait painter.

Portraits are clearly the principal genre of Shiy’s early career. Around 1940, when he was a student at the Hangzhou National College of Art, he would frequently paint classmates or other youths whom he admired. Constantly practicing and honing his skills with the help of these models, he gradually found his own way. Before the 1950s, he was mostly influenced by modern Western painting, with his style an eclectic mix of classical, impressionist, and Fauvist elements. In particular, he took his cue from Cézanne and Matisse, as well as Picasso’s blue period, and his work from that time shows a vibrant and intense palette. In 1948, he came to Taiwan with the National Government, and he continued to paint in his early style until he left his job as a teacher at Chiayi High School to come to Taipei. There, he would make a conspicuous breakthrough.

His move to Taipei was motivated by the hope to become a full-time painter and live off his artistic output. From 1955 onwards, his main source of income were commissioned portrait paintings. During this phase, he was fond of using vivid primary colors and, under the influence of French painter Bernard Buffet, strong lines and thick contours, as well as exaggerated and distorted shapes, in his portraits. Most of the works of this period, whether they were depicting men or women, had a sort of flat, two-dimensional, and masculine quality about them, relying heavily on rough lines and jagged edges.

 


 
Shiy De-jinn was very good at observing human nature and capturing his models’ unique expressions and charm. He once said, “An experienced portrait painter finds a way to let his subject’s background, consciousness, and mood shine through the colors he uses.” His portraits are never an exercise in flattery, but always an attempt to faithfully reproduce his model’s individual character and personality. At the same time, he strove to find fresh, creative ways to achieve this goal, and his pictures exude a considerable period feel. As the artist himself put it, “When painting someone’s portrait, it is not enough to trust in your own skill and effort. You need your model to cooperate with you: they have to sit still so that you can concentrate and work in a calm, deliberate fashion. There needs to be an intimate rapport between painter and subject if the result is to be satisfactory, and so a good portrait is always created through a joint effort of artist and model.” It is this kind of close relationship and careful execution that deeply touches viewers of Shiy’s portraits.

Many of Shiy’s portraits were commissioned by notable personages and celebrities, which makes them perceptive records of society and its fashions and tastes at the time. They also include paintings of foreign diplomats in Taiwan and sketches of people made in the streets of Europe during the artist’s travels there, as well as depictions of the general population in Taiwan. Shiy had a profound love for the island’s countryside, for its farmers and workers engaged in hard physical labor. This connection to the land and its people carries over seamlessly into his later work, which is dominated by landscape painting. Among his portraits are some of famous fellow artists, many of whom are shown with rather sad, contemplative faces, surely a reflection of the widespread sense of oppression and stifling restraints on literature and the arts during that era. Last not least, there are the portraits Shiy made of his lovers and admirers, very few of which were ever shown in public during the artist’s lifetime. These pictures speak of his love of other men, and reveal his mind’s preoccupation with the beauty and charms of youth.

Although Shiy De-jinn left us with many arresting portraits, only a small number of them are actually circulating in the open market. The vast majority of works commissioned by high society members are still in their or their families’ possession, and very few are likely to make it into the market. Most of the rest were donated to museums and galleries by the Shiy De-jinn Foundation after the artist’s demise. The comparatively high prices that portraits by Shiy often command on the art market are therefore at least partly explained by the fact that there are so few of them for sale. The 1960 oil painting “Youth of Seashore,” for example, sold at auction for NT$8.26 million (approx. US$280,000) in 2012, making it the second most expensive painting by Shiy to be sold at any auction in recent years, the number one spot going to his well-known “Self-Portrait in Oil.” The Ravenel Taipei and Hong Kong Autumn Auctions will feature three portraits of female socialites, all of which are expected to be among the main highlights of these events.

By comparison, prices for Shiy’s sketch portraits are much more affordable, simply because there are a lot more of them to go around. They are typical examples of the artist’s vigorous, expressive line work, and might be especially interesting for people just starting to build a collection. Prices usually range between NT$200,000 to 300,000.
 


Colorful Modern Landscapes
 
“Retiring from the bustling world to return to nature” could be the motto of Shiy De-jinn’s life. In love with his art and with life and its many down-to-earth pleasures, he was also a man of discipline and perseverance, willing to travel far and wide in pursuit of beauty and inspiration. He was particularly partial to traditional folkways and old buildings and things harking back to simpler times; never afraid to speak his mind and follow his own course of action, he lived a life of bold self-realization. Yet this came at a price: like all pioneers who are ahead of their times, he encountered numerous setbacks. No stranger to struggles and tribulations, he often felt emotionally lonely and had to fight against physical illness, yet the later years of his life saw him burst into creative productivity as he used his art to repay the world for what it had given him.

Into one of his paintings, Shiy once wrote the famous poetic words, “True brightness lies in the seasons, genuine fragrance in the soil, and real beauty in the wind and rain.” These short verses sum up a life that was rather short but exceptionally beautiful. During the last phase of his life, he picked up the writing brush and kept practicing his calligraphy, again and again writing those powerful black strokes, lines, and curves that he had already honed to perfection as a young man—only now it took a gargantuan effort of will to do it. These calligraphies, then, represent a triumph of mind over matter.

From his landscapes, we can catch a glimpse of his ideals and outlook on life. When sketching and painting scenery from life in his late years, Shiy would combine oil paint, watercolor, and ink wash to produce pictures of an amazing richness and diversity, full of both subtle poesy and sweeping grandeur. One of the important innovators and modernizers of the Chinese “shanshui” genre, Shiy has certainly more than earned his place in the history of art in Taiwan.

Shiy once said, “Through Western-style watercolor, my landscapes convey the profound values of the East, and nature is thus interpreted in a wholly new way. My colors also hold a special charm in terms of Chinese ink painting, injecting this classic genre with fresh vitality. For many years, I devoted myself to exploring the mutual influence, and possible channels of communication, between Eastern and Western painting. Now I have finally found my way!” Finding your way—this is what an artist’s life is really about, and Shiy certainly succeeded in this department.
 


 
“His brushwork is Chinese, his composition modern; his mood is ethnic and his life rooted in Taiwan.” Shiy De-jinn witnessed Taiwan’s rapid transformation from an agrarian into an industrial society, and in his work he strove to blend the lively traditions of folk art with his personal sense of historyand culture, a powerful mix that is particularly evident in his landscape paintings.

At its 2013 Taipei Spring Auction, Ravenel put up a collection of works that had been in the possession of a close friend for over 30 years. Most of these lots were paintings completed during the 1960s or later, and many stemmed from the period between 1970 and 1981, featuring in particular mature landscapes showing sceneries of Wu-ling, Pu-li, Taichung, Orchid Island, Ilan, Jioufen, and Tamsui, all revealing the artist to still be full of creative energy. The entire lot caused a big buzz among collectors, and in the end all works found a new owner, on average for more than three times the pre-auction estimate.

For its Taipei Autumn Auction, Ravenel will present 23 worksfrom the remaining collection of Mr. L, Shiy De-jinn’s close friend. Among these are 12 landscapes, most of them made on excursions in L’s company during which the artist sketched and painted from life. In addition to scenes of Tamsui and Jioufen, there are paintings showing the majestic sceneries of Yushan, Lishan, and Jiujiu Feng. With most of Shiy’s work now residing in museum collections, opportunities to acquire some of his best works for a private collection are extremely rare, and landscapes like these, which often have been in the hands of close friends for many decades, are even harder to come by. The year 2013 marks Shiy De-jinn’s 90th birth anniversary, and I invite you to revisit the portraits and landscapes of this wonderful artist who has captured the beauty of Taiwan and its people in a way few others have.


 


 


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