Going Once, Going Twice…
Zhou Chunya’s Sheep Shearing
ZHOU Chunya’s 1981 oil painting Sheep Shearing was sold at a recent China Guardian auction for RMB 30.475 million (US $4.79 million). This is a record for a work by Zhou.
Sheep Shearing is representative of Zhou’s early work as a student majoring in woodblock painting at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.
This masterpiece is one of a number of Tibet-themed paintings completed by the artist early in his career. Previously, the best known of this Tibet series of works was The New Generation of Tibetans, painted by the artist in 1980 and highly acclaimed at the 1981 Second National Youth Arts Exhibition. In 2008 it was sold for RMB 6.272 million at auction.
The Second National Youth Arts Exhibition took place during a period of transformation in Chinese art, with Soviet Union-style revolutionary realism being steadily replaced by the influence of classical realism from Western Europe.
Like Zhou’s The New Generation of Tibetans, the 1981 exhibition’s other prize-winning works such as Father by Luo Zhongli and Spring Breeze is Awake by He Duoling showed a marked tendency toward paying closer attention to humanity, average citizens and undramatic scenes from daily life as we actually see them. These artists did away with the stagnant paradigms of Soviet conformism and embraced creative flexible methods that allowed their own feelings and moods to be expressed in their works.
In 1986, Zhou headed to the Kassel Art Academy, Germany, to continue his studies. There, he was greatly influence by the Neo-expressionism that first became prominent in the U.S. and then in Western Europe. In particular, Zhou was impressed by the Neo-expressionist use of striking color and large brush strokes.
After returning to China, Zhou devoted more of his time to studying classical Chinese painting and aesthetics rather than Western traditions. One of the first themes he explored in this period of his creative life was the “rock,” a subject with moral connotations in Chinese art. Through a representative Western material, oil, he endowed this Chinese cultural icon with a bolder sense of history and humanistic spirit.
After the “rock” series, Zhou went on to create dozens of works called the Green Dogs. Every dog represents an emotion or gesture, and Zhou says these became symbolic self-portraits. Following Green Dogs were his Peach Blossoms and Peach Blossoms and Pink Figures series.
Adapting the skills and forms used in Chinese flower-and-birds paintings and the emotional connotations and sexual suggestiveness of the peach blossom, Zhou presents his unique perspective on the life and mind of contemporary Chinese.
As for The New Generation of Tibetans and Sheep Shearing, Zhou comments, “When I left the pastures, many images faded from memory, but the bold, dramatic colors of the grassland and the warm, simple images of the Tibetans at home on them stuck with me.”
In Sheep Shearing, few details are presented, and Zhou avoids a socialist realist light-dark contrasting of the work’s central scene and background components in order to emphasize the context of the scene. Zhou leaves significant parts of the canvas their original white in order to draw prominence to the shades of brown in the painting. Vivid brush strokes reveal the emotions of the painter.
In 1991, Sheep Shearing was bought by a collector in Chengdu for RMB 10,000. This collector sold it on shortly afterwards to a Taiwanese contemporary for RMB 20,000. Twenty years later, a bidder paid RMB 30.475 million to become the third owner of the work. Even Zhou, now 56, has admitted to being surprised by the painting’s high selling price.
According to the Contemporary Art Market 2010/2011 report by Artprice, half of the world’s top 10 contemporary artists by revenue in the period from July 2010 to June 2011 were Chinese. Zhou Chunya comes in at No.10 with an auction gross of US $14.5 million. One piece from his Green Dog series was auctioned for US $913,700 (RMB 9.77 million). With the precedent set by Sheep Shearing, don’t be surprised to hear about more record-breaking price feats by Zhou’s creations in the years to come.