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The South Range Meeting My Tranquil Eyes: The Wonderful Art of Yu Cheng-yao

 
 


 

Known as the “Three Masters Crossing the Sea,” Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Puru (Pu Xinyu, 1896-1963), and Huang Junbi (1898-1991) were all born and raised in late 19th century China, but later settled across the Strait in Taiwan. They are among the most representative pioneer s of modern Chineseart, combining artistic merit and polished styles with considerable social standing and influence. However, there is another important 20th century Chinese artist who shares a similar background and very much deserves our attention: Yu Cheng-yao (1898-1993), a veritable Tao Yuanming of modern times, a sort of recluse painter of outstanding talent and ability. He is the focus of this issue’s Art and Investment column.


 



A New Tradition of Chinese Landscape Painting
 

Born in 1898 in Yongchun in Fujian Province, Yu’s original name was “Shun,” with “Cheng-yao” being his “zi” or style name—the characters “shun” and “yao” were chosen in allusion to the legendary virtuous emperors Yao and Shun. In 1920, Yu went to Japan to study economics at Waseda University. Later he enrolled in the Imperial Japanese Army Academy and joined the military. Returning to China, he became a tactical instructor at the Whampoa Military Academy and served in the army for the next 26 years, making it to lieutenant general. Retiring from the armed forces after the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, he ran a freight company for a while before starting a medicinal herbs and materials business spanning Xiamen, Taiwan, and Singapore, which made him a very wellto- do merchant. When the Nationalist government and army retreated to Taiwan towards the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Yu happened to be visiting a friend on the island. The changed political situation meant that he was not able to bring his family back to Taiwan, and from that time onwards he lived alone in Taipei.

 

Yu Cheng-yao’s career as a painter began late in his life: it was only after retiring from his business in 1955 that he picked up the paint brush, at the age of 56. Moreover, instead of learning from a master, he decided to take the autodidactic route, developing his talent at leisure in the spirit of the poet Du Fu’s lines, “Taking ten days to paint a stream, and five to draw a rock.” Having been gifted with a keen artistic instinct, he made continuous progress and gradually found his own distinct form and style. In his over 30 years in Taiwan, he led a simple and secluded life, unconcerned with fame or the fads and politics of society. If his lifestyle was reminiscent of Yan Hui, the favorite disciple of Confucius, then his favorite pastimes—apart from painting— were those typical of the Chinese literati class: reading, writing calligraphy, reciting and composing poetry, and looking at beautiful paintings. A special interest of Yu’s was traditional stringed and woodwind “nanguan” music. All in all, a rich inner life and a wide range of intellectual and artistic interests were the ultimate wellspring of his fascinating oeuvre.


 


 

When Huang Junbi happened to see some of Yu’s works in an exhibition in 1963, he was deeply impressed by what he described as the artist’s “genuine and sophisticated style, detailed yet detached,” and suggested to Yu that they swap some of their works as a sign of their mutual esteem and appreciation. When internationally renowned Chinese art historian Chu-tsing Li saw Yu’s paintings during a visit to Taiwan in 1965, he rated his works so highly that he invited Yu to participate in the joint exhibition “The New Chinese Landscape: Six Contemporary Chinese Artists” (organized by Li himself), which toured across several museums and university art galleries in the United States the following two years, and featured a number of other distinguished painters and ink wash masters, such as Chi-chien Wang, Chen Chi-Kwan, Liu Kuo-sung, Chuang Che, and Fong Chung-ray. That exhibition is now widely considered as a milestone in the development of modern art in Taiwan, in particular laying the foundation for a modern school of ink and wash painting.

 

In 1972, painter and connoisseur Chi-chien Wang bought two of Yu’s masterpieces, “Eight-screen Landscape” and “Four-screen Landscape,” reserving high praise for the artist: “Old Mr. Yu is an unusual painter. He has had no training, and yet his sense of structural design is first class. He has no brushwork to speak of, and yet his painting is magnificent. I have known many artists of the past and present who have had excellent training, and many who have far better brushwork, but I have never met anyone who can paint like Yu Cheng-yao. His art is truly amazing. I don't know how he does it. He must be 80 years old—lives all alone in a hovel and produces magnificent art.” (Quote from Joan Stanley-Baker, “Old Mr. Yu: Talent & Vision”)

 

Chi-chien Wang, also known as C. C. Wang, was widely known as having a keen eye for great art, and back in those days he owned one of the largest collections of Chinese literati art in the world, ranging from Song Dynasty landscapes to modern works: a cross section of Chinese painting through the centuries. Chi-chien Wang once said, “Yu Cheng-yao could very well be a second Wang Meng,” comparing Yu with the famous Yuan Dynasty landscape painter. But whether you call him a second Wang Meng or a Chinese van Gogh, Yu Cheng-yao certainly was not one to simply copy previous masters’ styles—rather, he is all about originality and invention, creating a plain, no-frills style that derives its appeal from its compactness and authenticity. He also developed a new form of “cunfa”, applying the texture strokes of traditional Chinese painting in a more uninhibited and inspired fashion to push the boundaries of landscape painting and attain new artistic heights. His latest works in particular show exceptional skill and maturity in color and composition.


 



Artistic Value at Par with Zhang Daqian, Market Value with Great Potential for Further Growth
 

Although Yu is an artist of outstanding appeal, the aesthetic value of his output was not always reflected in the prices paid for his work. Maybe this had something to do with his humble origins and the fact that he didn’t belong to any traditional or modern “school,” all of which would make it difficult to find acceptance and recognition in the fairly conservative world of ink wash painting. Art critic and historian Joan Stanley-Baker, a great admirer of Yu’s work, wryly stated in a 1986 article, “It was curious to see successful, internationally renowned artists coming to this hovel to pay their respects to this old master and to buy many of his paintings. On the other hand, staunch conservatives on the boards of powerful museums, men molded in the traditional manner, have repeatedly refused to entertain any suggestion of a large-scale exhibition of Yu’s painting and calligraphy.”

 

Chu-tsing Li expressed his respect for Yu Cheng-yao in a similar fashion, writing: “He is in no rush to sell his work, is not particularly interested in wealth or fame. Yu is content to simply pursue his artistic ideas and develop his great talent. I deeply admire this kind of attitude, and feel that it chimes well with his style of aesthetic expression, which is very much in the Chinese literati tradition.” After taking part in the joint exhibition “The New Chinese Landscape: Six Contemporary Chinese Artists”, organized by Li, Yu continued to paint over the next two decades, in which he lived a secluded life. In 1977, he held his first solo exhibition abroad, a rather low-key affair at the Chinese Cultural Center in New York, and during the 70s his paintings would occasionally appear at auction at Sotheby’s New York, offered in the Modern Chinese Art category, but they failed to fetch high prices or garner much attention. Few people actually knew much about this period of Yu’s career, and many thought that his first solo exhibition was the one held at Taipei’s Hsiung Shih Gallery in 1986. Either way, the fact remains that it borders on a miracle for any painter to have their first solo exhibition, issue their first catalogue, and find an agent and international recognition only when they are already in their seventies or eighties. Few are the artists who can truly be content with a simple life in a small downtown place, free from worldly aspirations and happy to just write “nanguan” music and compose poetry and paintings.


 


 

During his career, Yu Cheng-yao was associated with two galleries in Taipei, one being Hsiung Shih Gallery (1986 and 1987 Ink Wash Solo Exhibition; 1990 Calligraphy Solo Exhibition), the other Hanart Gallery (1988 New Ink Wash Works Exhibition; 1990 Calligraphy Solo Exhibition). He also held a retrospective and exhibition at the National Museum of History in Taipei and Hong Kong City Hall. Among the early collectors of his work were the above-mentioned Chi-chien Wang, Chinese orchestra Professor Liang Tsai-ping, fellow painters Chen Chi-Kwan and Ho Huai-shuo, as well as Chen Shouchun and his sister Chen Mei-o, who received encouragement from Yu and founded the traditional Chinese music ensemble HanTang YueFu. All of them have some of the artist’s best and most valuable works in their collection.

 

Yu’ s pa int ings f requent ly drew admiration and appreciation from other artists, and he would often give them away as gifts, or sell them at a bargain price. When Ho Huai-shuo bought some of Yu’s works in 1982, it was also a way of lending some financial support to an artist living pretty much in poverty. Later Ho wrote in a memorial article, “Back then, people thought it was an act of charity on their part when they gave money to Yu. Only now do they realize that it was Yu who was the charitable person!” Around 1990, after a spate of exhibitions and publications, and a number of articles on Yu that were printed in various magazines and journals, his name became better known. The then 90-year-old artist thus enjoyed some fame, as well as suddenly seeing his work in much demand by collectors and curators. How fickle the art market can be at times! In 1991, Yu returned to his native (Xiamen) where he quietly lived out his life in the company of his remaining family.


 


 

In 1992, Sotheby’s Taipei sold the painting “Panoramic Landscape” (also known as “Four-screen Landscape,” from the collection of C. C. Wang) at public auction for NT$6.82 million against a house estimate of NT$3.2-4.8 million. According to Lin Chuan-chu’s provenance data for that lot, Wang had bought the painting directly from Yu Cheng-yao, and its value had appreciated to more than 50 times its original price. Currently, “Panoramic Landscape” is listed as the fourth most expensive painting by Yu ever sold at auction.

 

After Yu’s death in 1993, a number of Taipei galleries held special exhibitions showing the artist’s work, including Lion Art Gallery, Metaphysical Art Gallery, and the Tamsui Center of Arts and Culture. The HanTang YueFu ensemble organized solo exhibitions at the Taipei Gallery in New York and the Taiwan Cultural Center in Paris, while the Taichung Provincial Art Museum held an exhibition and published a special catalogue of works by the artist. Meanwhile, the Jia Art Gallery also launched a series of activities to promote Yu’s work, including several exhibitions and lectures. All of the above institutions and organizations made important contributions to raising the profile of Yu Cheng-yao and his oeuvre.


 


 

Compared with the work of other ink wash artists, the prices of Yu Cheng Yao’s paintings are growing at a rather slow pace. When Hsiung Shih Gallery held its first exhibition with paintings by the artist, they fetched an average price of about NT$15,000 per cai (30 x 30 cm equals 1 cai). After entering the auction market, the price rose to NT$80,000 per cai. According to CANS Magazine, at a 2004 exhibition of painting and calligraphy by Yu, held by Wang Szuyong at his Jia Art Gallery, calligraphies were sold for NT$50,000 per cai, with colored ink wash paintings going for NT$500,000 per cai. Looking at the cross-strait auction market in recent years, prices have been increasing at a very sluggish pace. However, as the modern ink wash market is beginning to liven up, a growing number of collectors are becoming aware of Yu Cheng-yao’s unique style, as well as noticing the relatively low prices asked for his work due to long-term neglect and underappreciation. The signs are that we might soon see some solid growth in prices for Yu’s work.

 

During a 2013 art seminar on Yu Cheng-yao, Ni Tsai-chin, former director of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and current Director of the Tunghai University Fine Arts Research Center, stated: “To this day, Yu’s work remains under-appreciated in the art market. There is no doubt that the artistic merit of his paintings is on the same level of, say, Zhang Daqian, yet Yu Chengyao’s fame and reputation still lag well behind Zhang’s. The truth is that Yu is an absolutely brilliant painter, and we need to make sure that he and his works become much more widely known than

they are today.”


 



Special Ravenel Auction: An Important Private Collection: Works by Yu Cheng-yao


Indeed, we do need to make sure that more people become acquainted with the brilliant artist that Yu Chengyao undoubtedly is! A big part of this process are exhibitions, symposiums, and auctions. Straddling 2013 and 2014, The National Museum of History in Taipei held an exhibition titled “The Three Grandmasters of Fujian and Taiwan: The Calligraphy and Painting of Yu Chengyao, Shen Yao-chu, and Cheng Shanhsi.” Going on show in both Taipei and Xiamen, the works on display attracted countless collectors of ink wash art, and it were the works of Yu Cheng-yao that garnered the highest demand. It would appear that Yu’s art is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves.

 

In the pas t , works by Yu Chengyao were rarely seen in the auction market, but in recent years that has gradually started to change. In 2008, the painting “Magnificent Landscape” sold at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction for HK$5.78 million (approx. NT$24.84 million), setting a new auction record for works by Yu. This painting had previously changed owners for NT$31.2 million in a 2002 deal involving Taipei’s π Leader De auction house, but since the company’s director was suspected of fraud and fled abroad, this should probably not be considered a valid record. “Magnificent Landscape” (1984) and “Yangtze River” (1973) are the largest known ink wash paintings by Yu— all in all, there are supposed to be only a handful of paintings larger than 20 cai by the artist, making them particularly rare and valuable.


 


 

In 2010, the painting “Abundant Spring” (size: 19.4 cai) sold at a Christie’s Hong Kong auction for HK$3.38 million (approx. NT$13.87 million), making it the second most expensive painting by Yu ever sold at auction, and the most expensive per cai (at about NT$710,000 per cai).

 

On June 1 this year, Ravenel Taipei will hold a special spring auction titled “An Important Private Collection: Works by Yu Cheng-yao” that will feature 7 rare and valuable works that have been in the possession of private collectors for the past 20 to 30 years, including 4 early colored ink washes and 3 calligraphies.

This auction represents a rare opportunity to buy some of Yu Chengyao’s most representative works, all of them boasting very credible provenance. Among them, the painting “Green Valley,” previously shown at the Taipei Gallery in New York, as well as a retrospective held at the Taichung Provincial Art Museum, is especially valuable. Another item of particular interest is “Calligraphy ─ Tao Yuan-ming’ s The Poem Returning Home” with its naturally elegant style, a piece that is brimming with the artist’s genuine and down-to-earth personality. “Chrysanthemums I was picking under the east hedge / when the South Range met my tranquil eyes”: these lines are like a microcosmos of Yu Cheng-yao’s life. The entire lot of 7 outstanding works will be one of the main focuses this spring, a true highlight we are all looking forward to.


 


 


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