The retrospective exhibition of Ding Yanyong’s work at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, “No Frontiers”, is subtitled “Straddling the East and the West” and “Amusing with art across time”, two phrases that encapsulate different facets of his versatility and lifetime achievement.
Ding went to Japan to study Western art in the 1920s. There he learned from the Tokyo Fine Arts School not only the academic style of Western art. The more avant-garde art from Europe, such as Fauvism and Cubism, also heavily influenced him.
His exposure to Western art in Japan was crucial to his artistic development. In his early work, vivid colour, lively lines and flat decorative surfaces show how he had been influenced by the work of Henry Matisse. He was referred to at the time as “the Oriental Matisse”.
According to Raymond Tang, Assistant Curator at the Hong Kong Museum of Art: “After that he also turned his eyes back to traditional Chinese art, because he realized that many Western artists were drawing inspiration not only from African art but also oriental art, so he thought that maybe we could also capture inspirations from ancient Chinese culture.”
In Ding’s early oil paintings, the intensive use of bold lines reveals him finding his way back to Chinese traditional painting, to “straddling the East and the West”.
Also significant in Ding’s early oil paintings are the “double-sided” pieces, created when he first came to Hong Kong in 1949. He was going through tough times financially, and had little cash for art materials.
Raymopnd Tang again: “In this period, his life changed dramatically. He went from being a very famous principle of an art school, to coming to Hong Kong as a refugee, empty-handed. He experienced a very hard time. He was even forced to stop painting for a short period. In 1951 he got a job as an art teacher in a middle school. He’d use one piece of board to paint on again and again, or even paint on not just one side, but on both sides. Through infrared scanning we can find under the painting, more than one other painting, again and again.”
Later Ding Yanyong began to focus on ink and brush paintings. After the period of hardship and dramatic life changes he had been through, his style changed.
Professor Li was a student of Ding: “His early works are very uptight, very cautious in the layout and strokes. His later works became more open, perhaps because he was maturing and getting older. He became more open minded and free, painted more loosely.
Ding spent most of his working life in art education. In 1957 he began teaching Chinese painting at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His unrestrained style of painting attracted not only fine art students, but also observers from other departments.
Another student says: “We always joked that he could even draw things he had never seen, like the god Zhong Kui, the Eight Immortals, or “Seeking out Zhuge Liang”. He had never seen any of them. Even in Chinese landscape painting, his style was not to sketch. He’d just feel the images, and then use the brush to create his own tree, stones and water.”
Painting casually, with a relatively dry brush and simple strokes, Ding began showing a mood of desolation in his works. This reflected his loneliness in Hong Kong. His family had remained in mainland China.
The natural landscape is not at the centre of Ding’s Chinese painting. He preferred drawing figures like the characters from the Chinese opera “Farewell to my Concubine”, mythical figures like Zhong Kui, or even others he had never seen, in a humorous and surreal way.
A former student describes him at work: “He was always confident in what he wanted to paint. I remember once in the lecture, I am sure he had just painted Zhong Kui. Then one student in the class said: “Mr. Ding you have drawn Zhong Kui, why not draw the Guardians of the Underworld Ox-head and Horse-face?” Then he took a paper and started drawing the Ox-head and Horse-face. He definitely hadn’t considered this theme before the lesson, how to paint it or lay it out. He’d just been asked to paint spontaneously. The painting is very special. For example, he used lots of broken strokes to show the hairy mixture of human and animal features. He finished it in about ten minutes. ”
Ding painted more freely in his later works, such as the ink animal paintings that revealed the strong influence of Bada Shanren. He depicted birds, flowers, and cattle economically, with simple strokes. Later he took this even further by developing his signature one-stroke paintings.
Assistant Curator Raymond Tang: “He used the technique and concept of Chinese calligraphy and literati painting, and also mad use of the power of the brush stroke, the monotone of ink wash. It sometimes seems to be a form of cursive script, or a very free hand doing traditional ink painting, something like that. He was able to make use of the same concept not just in his ink painting, but also in his seal carving and oil painting.”
Ding, who died in 1978, was one of Hong Kong’s best-loved artists. His artistic world is wide ranging, and includes oil painting, Chinese painting, calligraphy and seal carving. He mastered both traditional and unconventional styles of brush painting, moving effortlessly between Eastern and Western styles. Perhaps though the memory that most will take away from his work is one of its charm and lightness of touch.