Spreading the word

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am

When lawyers John Tong Chor-nam and Herman Tsoi Hak-chiu selected 117 Chao Shao-an paintings from their collections for an upcoming show, they wanted not only to showcase the artistic brilliance of the Lingnan master but also to champion classical southern Chinese art.

So after the exhibition, which runs at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from Saturday for five days, the pair will donate some of the works to art institutions abroad including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Tong says most overseas collections of Chinese classical art, such as that at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, focus on works from the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. This is partly because Chinese art from the Qing dynasty onwards - with a few exceptions such as inks by Zhang Daquian and Qi Baishi - is hard to authenticate. 'There are too many well produced fakes,' Tong says.

Another reason is that the Lingnan school of painting, which has its roots in southern China, has never attained the recognition it deserves: it is frowned upon as being unconventional. 'The southern Chinese are more innovative and accepting of overseas influences than the northern Chinese. They like to take the best of foreign cultures and make it their own,' says Tong. 'So it is not uncommon to see Lingnan artists adopting Japanese or Western techniques.'

But taste is constantly changing and the recent Chinese economic boom has resulted in an increasing number of collectors and investors buying art, including Lingnan works. Chao - whose name is also spelt Zhao Shao'ang - is among the most sought-after artists today (he died in 1998 at the age of 93). The Hong Kong Heritage Museum is showing an exhibition of Chao's works, which runs until May 10, as part of its A Salute to Masters series.

The exhibition Zhao Shao'ang Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of You Yi Tang, is jointly organised by Tong and Tsoi (the founders of You Yi Tang) and Sotheby's to coincide with the auction house's spring sales between April 2 and April 9.

The works - including paintings of his signature cicada as well as flowers, birds, bamboo, landscapes and calligraphy - chart Chao's artistic development.

The total value of the works on show is estimated to be at least HK$80 million.

One of the highlights is a hanging scroll titled Chaos (1967), an atmospheric ink on paper depicting dark storm clouds. According to Tong, the piece reflects the Panyu, Guangdong-born artist's state of mind at the time. 'Chao never talked about politics, which makes this work the more significant,' the lawyer says. 'It was painted at the time of the 1967 riots in Hong Kong amid rumours that British sovereignty was going to end and the Chinese would take over. The artist, who had left the mainland [in 1948] to settle in the territory, was clearly not keen on that prospect.'

The accompanying poem in Chaos talks about the uncertainties and fear that people faced at the time, 'so it reflects the social sentiment at the time,' Tong says, adding the artist kept the painting until his death, and it has not previously been shown to the public.

Another important piece on show is Bountiful Spring, completed in three days to celebrate the 10th anniversary of an old local art magazine, Dai Shing. The colourful painting depicts 10 different flowers with a peony as the centrepiece.

'This is a one-of-a-kind piece,' says Tong. 'I loved it so much I kept asking the magazine owner to sell it to me. He initially refused but eventually relented ... I bought it around 1989/90 for HK$160,000 before he died.

'Then in 1993, Chao wanted to buy the piece back for HK$800,000 but I declined ... it's not the money, this work really is unique. The peony is very attractive - the more you look at it the more you fall in love with it,' Tong says.

Known for his vibrant use of colours, Chao was influenced by his teacher Gao Qifeng, a pioneer of the Lingnan School of Painting, according to the Heritage Museum. Chao was committed to combining traditional techniques with a careful observation of nature. As a result, he developed a style that was characterised by expressive brushwork, refined compositions and a personal sentiment.

'With a solid background in realistic sketching that proved vital to his artistic achievements, Chao's works are not only astoundingly accurate in their representation, but also imbued with a poetic mood and a tangible inner soul,' the museum says.

Chao's student Au Ho-nien says the master set many new examples for Chinese painting. Notably, Chao combined 'the sense of philosophy, the emotion of literature, and a poetic atmosphere of deep tranquility, with the traditional styles', Au says. 'Chao's brush and wash skills are so excellent that he could manage an interplay of load and lightness, ink and colour, whether the composition angle was customary or off the beaten track.'

Tong says he is reluctant to part with any works from his collection because 'it is very, very hard to build' and is often the result of spending years cultivating a relationship with the artist, as in the case of Chao.

However, as interest in Lingnan paintings continues to grow, both he and Tsoi hope that the genre will finally muster the kind of respect, locally and internationally, that in their view is long overdue to the southern school.

Zhao Shao'ang Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of You Yi Tang, Sat-Apr 7, 10am-3pm, Hall 5, HK Convention and Exhibition Centre. Free admission. Inquiries: 2524 8121