Christie's Spring Sales Preview Exhibitions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am

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Christie's Spring Sales Preview Exhibitions
Fri to May 30

Collectors whose interest in 20th-century Chinese artists has started to wane with the over-saturation of Qi Baishi, Wu Guangzhong and other modern masters, will perk up when they discover a charming, colour ink-and-brush painting by cartoonist and artist Huang Yao which is coming under the hammer on May 29 at Christie's fine Chinese modern paintings sales.

Huang's refreshing 1980 painting, Lan Ke Shan Tu (Immortal Chess Players), which Christie's Hong Kong lists as Child Play, perfectly represents this multi-talented artist who has long been overlooked.

Displaying Huang's erudition and scholarship about traditional Chinese tales, this ink painting tells the story of a woodcutter in the Jin dynasty who came upon two children playing chess. He stood there watching them and found, before the game ended, that the handle (ke) of his axe had decayed (lan). He hurried home only to find that no one recognised him and those he had known had all passed away. Indeed, he had encountered two immortals playing chess.

In the painting Huang wrote - in his characteristic style of upside-down calligraphy, known as chuyun shu - a poem about a lifetime in the worldly sphere being but the duration of a chess game in the immortal realm. Christie's estimate for this ink-and- brush work on paper is HK$150,000-HK$200,000.

The artist was born in 1914 in Shanghai, and educated in the Chinese classics, literature, studies of folklore, calligraphy and painting, according to Christie's. In 1934, Huang was working at the Shanghai News as a senior journalist after being hired by the newspaper at age 17.

Huang's artistic career, with an innovative and diverse range of works ranging from paintings of folk tales to children at play to calligraphic paintings, also included cartoons, creating works under the name of Niu Bi Zi (Ox Snout).

Simply drawn from a caricature of his own bespectacled face, Niu Bi Zi panels often reflected his intense patriotism, sadness over the loss of Chinese culture, despair over the intrusion and arrogance of the Western powers, and the brutal occupation by the Japanese. He used humour and familiar line-drawn images to stir the Chinese to resist.

Instead of writing fiery tracts of protest, he encapsulated his messages in art that span all Chinese categories, including his unique upside-down calligraphy that lends a childlike and endearing quality to his works. His calligraphic works also express a deep appreciation of Chinese etymology, a field he had spent years researching. Huang made huge contributions as an artist and educator on the mainland, and in Hong Kong, Hanoi, Bangkok, Singapore and, finally, in Malaysia where he settled in 1956 and died in 1987.

In 2011, the first major retrospective of Huang's work on the mainland was held at the Shanghai Art Museum. His works have also been exhibited in the Singapore Art Museum and acquired by the British Museum, the Taipei Palace Museum and most recently by the Oxford-based Chinese art expert and collector, Professor Michael Sullivan.

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