The Art of Ding Yanyong

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. ”

cat21Ding 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.


In the Show – 20th January 2009


Until April 5th the Museum of Art is featuring a retrospective exhibition of the work of Ding Yanyong. Ding, who died in 1978, was one of Hong Kong’ s best-loved artists, known for the variety and charm of his work. The exhibition, “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.

“Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog” is a bestselling book by journalist John Grogan, based on his own newspaper columns. Now, it’s a movie, called more simply “Marley and Me”, and starring Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, and – more importantly – 22 Labrador retrievers who all play the one problem pooch – Marley. Reviewer Gary Pollard tells us more.

For almost two decades, Japanese performance artist, Tatsumi Orimoto has taken his famous alter ego Breadman around the world. Inspired by a Christian friend he met while studying in the United States in the early 1990s, began to use the Christian symbolism of bread as Christ’s body in his performance art.

As part of the City Festival for three nights over the weekend, battle was under way at the Fringe Club. This was not a conflict waged with weapons or armies though, unless you count bare hands, and an army of notes and chords. Pianists Andreas Kern and Paul Cibis were duking it out over the keyboards in front of an audience that could vote on who was the best.

To see a streaming video of the show please click here.

In the Show – 13th January 2009

Chinese opera has several forms, but perhaps no other takes the art to such a degree of refinement as Kunqu or Kun Opera. A recent festival of its best-known pieces, organised by Taiwanese writer Pai Hsien-yung, highlighted its variety, and also introduced audiences to the sound of a 1,200 year old instrument. That instrument is a guqin, known as the “Jiuxiao Huanpei”. It was made in the Tang dynasty and was used in the imperial court during the coronation of Tang Taizong’s third son in 756 AD.

One thing no-one will ever call Australian director Baz Luhrmann is “understated”. As viewers of “Moulin Rouge” or his version of “Romeo and Juliet” will recall, he’s a pull-out-all-the-stops, take-no-prisoners kind of director. As its title suggests, his most recent movie “Australia” takes on a big theme: the story of his homeland. It was, by many, eagerly awaited. It was also, by many, considered a disappointment when it arrived. Film reviewer Gary Pollard wasn’t that disappointed, but he did not have high hopes in the first place.

“Re;animating” is a mixed-media installation exhibition at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei, and organised in collaboration with the City Festival. The exhibition echoes the rejuvenation of the old factory building into an arts centre. Eighteen local artists have been invited to create mixed-media installations. Their works are all made of industrial material such as plastics, thread, wood, fabric, wire, clay and metal.

For centuries, some male musicians made what could be considered the ultimate sacrifice to achieve a purity of voice, undergoing castration to become the so-called castrati. Composers wrote music especially for singers to sing in the castrati range, which is – broadly – similar to that of a female mezzo-soprano. That rather extreme path to musical ability has long since become illegal – the last castrati was recorded at the turn of the 20th century – but the music remains. And much of it is now song by male singers who have undergone training specifically to develop the higher ranges of the voice.

One of them, Jorg Waschinski, was performing at the City Hall with the City Chamber Orchestra and conductor Jean Thorel, on the day of our show. We caught up with him at rehearsals the day before, and spoke to him about his art.


To see a streaming video of the show please click here.

In the Show – January 6th 2009

Cinema and psychoanalysis were born around the same time.


In 1895, the Lumiere brothers showed their first film, “Workers Leaving a Factory”  in a French café. That same year Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer published “Studies in Hysteria” and laid the cornerstone of psychoanalysis. “Movies on the Mind – Psychology and Film since Sigmund Freud” is an exhibition and a series of movie screenings, arranged by the Hong Kong Film Archive, that deals with the relationship between film and Freudian psychology.

Running from this Thursday until the 24th January, the Fringe Club’s City Festival will be featuring cabaret, dance, music, theatre, exhibitions and seminars. In our studio today to tell us more about the festival is the club’s artistic director Benny Chia.

In the 2005 animated movie “Madagascar” a group of zoo animals from New York ended up in the country of the title after being shipwrecked on the way back to Africa. In “Madagascar – Escape 2 Africa” they make it the rest of the way, although they are actually trying to get back “home” to New York. Reviewer Gary Pollard is in our studio to tell us more.

The girl who was destined to be known as Joan of Arc began life as a peasant, but claimed she had visions from God that told her to free her homeland from English domination. She became a political, nationalist, and religious icon. She’s also something of an enigma, whose life and character have been examined in countless plays, books, and movies. Students of the Academy for Performing Arts, and the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre are joining forces to perform Jean Anouilh’s “The Lark” in a Cantonese version, from the day after our show until January 22nd.


Although known primarily as a comedienne and a sex bomb, Marilyn Monroe also took on serious roles. She had aspirations to go even further, to appear in Shakespeare. Warren Wills and Poppy Roe (above) are appearing at the Fringe Club in “Marilyn and Will” which looks at how Marilyn might have approached the role of Shakespeare’s equally tragic Ophelia. They are in our studio to tell us more about the show.

To see a streaming video of this episode, please click here.

In the Show – 30th December 2008

From chairs made of rope to vases inspired by mucus, contemporary Dutch design tends to emphasise the humorous and avant-garde, looking at things from a new perspective. Dutch design was the focus of this year’s Business of Design Week 2008, which was called “Open Minds”, and we talk to some of the designers from the Netherlands about what they think makes their country’s creativity stand out.

The movie “Twilight”, currently highly successful at the box office, is more of a teenage girls’ romance story than a vampire film. It’s based on a series of novels in which a teenage girl falls in love with a vampire who – thoughtfully – doesn’t want to go all the way with her. For reviewer Gary Pollard, it’s an attempt to make the subversive safe.

The French Revolution had a far-reaching effect on world history, beginning with idealism and ending with mass executions by guillotine. A new exhibition at the Museum of History takes us back to that era.

For violinist Leung Kin-fung, Brahms has always been a favourite composer. He has celebrated this by recording, with accompanist Nancy Loo, all Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. They perform one of them for us in the studio tonight.

To see a streaming video of the show, please click here.