Tree Series
signed in Chinese (lower right); signed and titled in Chinese, inscribed and dated ‘195 x 130 cm 1993’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
195 x 130 cm. (76 3/4 x 51 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1993
Private Collection, Asia
Timezone 8 Ltd., Zhou Chunya, Shanghai, China, 2010 (illustrated, p.205).
Shanghai, China, Shanghai Art Museum, 1971-2010 Forty Years Retrospective Review of Zhou Chunya, 13-23 June 2010.

Lot Essay

“Eastward the Great River flows, carrying away those great souls of the past. The ancient fort to the west, they say, is the Red Cliff where Duke Zhou of the Three Kingdoms had his great victory. Rocks pierce the sky, and the crashing waves toss up great plumes of foam like snow. This great scene, like a painting, was once a stage for many great heroes.” - Su Shi, Remembrance at the Red Cliff

Zhou Chunya’s Tree Series (Lot 8010) dates from 1993. At that time, following his return to China from Germany in 1989, he engaged in an intensive study of works by Chinese literati, or scholar-painters, and their free, impressionistic style. The series of works that resulted blends the rough freedom of German Neo-Expressionist lines with deep-toned, dark colours to produce an aesthetic with great inner power. Zhou lays down swift, streaky brushstrokes in thick, heavy oils, while beautiful, multi-coloured hues storm across the canvas to suggest the outlines of rocks and woods, human forms, Chinese script, or trees on the mountainside. However, the Tree Series does not simply depict natural scenes. In an illusory space crowded with images, these works illustrate the dictums of Huang Buzhi that “observing the object, you must abandon it,” and “it’s all in the idea, not in the forms.” That is, in painting, rather than shaping the form, it is conveying the spirit that is the ultimate goal. Chinese landscape painters, unlike their Western counterparts, did not depict every detail of the scenic panorama, believing that outer form is surface only, and that persons of superior understanding should be able to perceive their real essence. Tree Series challenges our perceptions with its non-natural forms, and its intense visual impact urges viewer to consider the essence of things expressed through this moody, illusory piece.

A Stone, and the Vault of Heaven

“Painting, I say, is the great method by which we capture all the changes under heaven. The spirit of mountain ranges and rivers, the shaping of nature over great spans of time, the natural flow of Yin and Yang; to pick up the brush, and with it to paint all the things in nature, is how I cultivate my own spirit.” – Shi Tao

Much of the spiritual culture of traditional China resides in the concept of “natural creation”. Every mountain and stone, each blade of grass and each tree, was seen as a work produced by nature, and therefore a symbol of its spiritual power. Zhou produced his Rock Series after studying the paintings of the earlier Chinese literati, works which ranged from observations of his own self to the boundless universe; that series represented the world in miniature, as well as “the universe in a grain of sand.” Speaking of the Song Dynasty’s Su Shi and his painting Wood and Rock (Lot 8008), Mi Fu wrote, “As Su Shi paints this withered tree, its trunk and branches have countless twists and turns. The texture strokes in the rocks are strange and extraordinary, like the complex twists and turns within his heart.” And though Zhou Chunya paints contemporary landscapes, that outlook does not restrict his ability to express the scholar-painter’s character. With his precise and nimble grasp of texture, feel, and structure, Zhou digs deep to portray the organic life of the inner spirit. Among all the products of ancient or modern times, East or West, Zhou Chunya’s achievement was the creation of a unique and exceptional aesthetic all his own.

It’s in the Idea, Not in the Form

“The method can change many times, but brush and ink never change. What never changes is the spirit; what changes many times is only the surface.” – Huang Binhong

In Huang Binhong’s understanding of Chinese painting, the spirit of ink and brush was unchanging; what changed were the forms and shapes portrayed through them. But those forms change as the heart changes, so that the meaning in a painting is something that comes from the heart. Zhou Chunya thought highly of Huang Binhong, and he once said, “When I was painting my Rock series, I was studying the landscapes of the scholar-painters. Unlike those who paint with Chinese ink and brush, I did not try to understand the properties of the materials or the demands of the composition. I tried to find the things that, based on my expressive purposes, would be new and unfamiliar to me, to introduce some surprises.” He brought to bear the creative vocabulary of the German Neo-Expressionists even as he explored the spirit and implications of the Eastern literati painters and their free, lyrical style.

In this work from the Tree Series, Zhou applies brushwork in a Neo-Expressionist style, building up a textural feel. He utilizes the free, flowing approach of ink-wash painting and its speed to express a strong brush feel. Interweaving these two approaches on his canvas, Zhou’s beautiful colours work with the empty areas of the canvas and their suggestion of space, enhancing the sense of weight as in trees and stones. There is also the suggestion of movement, so that in this mixture of line and colour we see what could be a tree, or what might be a rock, or we glimpse a human form or the suggestion of written Chinese characters. In the paintings of Zhu Da (Bada Shanren), we see shapes that are both strange and yet filled with a kind of static, charged energy, while in German Neo- Expressionism we find authoritative figures such as George Baselitz, using thick, heavy oils with assured brushwork. The superior talent of Zhou Chunya is expressed most in his modeling of form and use of colour.

Zhou Chunya enjoys expressing personal feelings through the painting medium. Typically, he combines simple, clean brushwork with clear and vivid colour, which he pulls together in strong, tightly knit compositions for an effect closely approaching abstraction. His reductive approach to painting requires a clear mind and controlled brushwork, where an additional stroke would make the work busy and superfluous, but one less would make the work seem incomplete. He focuses on reduction and refinement in the images he paints, on directness of rhetoric in painting, and especially on the sensitivity and richness of the subject itself.

Zhou Chunya created his Tree Series during the same span of years as his Rock Series. In it, nature becomes the vehicle that affords him a direct outpouring of his feelings. Fusing tradition and modernity, East and West, Zhou’s new wave avant-garde approach has found for him a place in the broader flow of history. His Tree Series exudes timelessness and conveys the sense of deep communion with nature, transferred onto these grand canvases. They provide an artistic vocabulary well-suited to our times, letting viewers find a space for deep communion with their own inner selves.

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