As many of you know, we have been predicting the rise and rise of Modern and Contemporary Ink Painting for many years and so it is gratifying to have our judgement validated by results at auction over the past two years or so.
A hint of what was coming was first apparent at China Guardian’s 2010 summer sales when an evocative study of the Austrian Alps by Zhang Daqian sold for $14.77 million which established the record for Chinese Modern and Contemporary painting at auction. By 2011 Qi Baishi’s “Eagle Standing on Pine Tree; Four-Character Couplet in Seal Script”, 1946 (image), sold for the equivalent of $65 million at China Guardian in Beijing which set a new record for Chinese painting at auction.
The inevitable eclipse of western masters by iconic Chinese artists is not so astonishing when seen in the context of the new Chinese wealth and its growing cultural assertiveness. Indeed the fact that Andy Warhol has also been knocked off his perch and is now ranked third behind the two Chinese, and ahead of Picasso, may even be the signal of a new more mature aesthetic emerging in the auction rooms of the world. For it would be difficult to deny the sheer quality of the Chinese works in terms of virtuosity and vision.
CHERISH THE HERITAGE
This emphatic and remorseless increase in prices for modern Chinese ink painters has happened since the axis of the global auction world shifted towards Asia from 2008, with Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, Xu Beihong (image) and Wu Guanzhong, all working with traditional techniques in innovative ways, leading the pack.
The auction rooms in China and Hong Kong from as early as 2006 began to witness an extraordinary appetite for Chinese works of art from a hitherto unrecognized class of collector. Who exactly these buyers are and what are the motives behind their spectacular entry into the field is not yet clear. What seems to be the case is that the buyers of Modern paintings do not generally overlap with those buying antiquities, where the element of pure speculation seems to be dominant and where some aggressive purchases have not even been paid for.
While speculation may also play a role in the modern art world, other complex factors are certainly playing a role. First of all, and quite predictably, there is an increasing recognition in China of her unrivalled cultural legacy, much of which was stripped from her by the colonial powers from the late 19th century on. It has therefore become a matter of national pride to retrieve and cherish that heritage.
Modern art is a natural and attractive target for this new class of buyer because there is still some supply in the market and, more importantly, it has the cachet that draws collectors all over the world to what is perceived of as modern and cool rather than old-fashioned and passé.
Secondly, there has emerged an ethos in China of ostentatious purchases of “luxury” items which, as we have seen from the unprecedented prices, include Bordeaux wines – in particular Lafitte. This is not only a matter of showing off but also the deployment of a political tool with gifts bestowed adroitly to extract commercial reciprocity.
A REVERENCE FOR EDUCATION
Then there is the fundamental reality of Chinese civilisation… the ideal, promulgated over more than 2000 years, of a national elite of scholars. Unlike any other great civilisation, the men who governed China were the product of an intellectual meritocracy. In order to attain powerful positions in the bureaucracy they had to submit to a rigorous examination system which ensured that they were educated to a very high intellectual level. This unique and all-important element in Chinese society has, even to this day and despite the ravages of the Cultural Revolution and subsequent rampant materialism, endowed the Chinese psychology with a reverence for education and culture that has never been extinguished. This legacy is embedded into the mindset of even the most crass of today’s entrepreneurial class.
This is why, as wealth in China continues to increase, we will continue to experience the effects of a newly assertive and confident multi-millionaire elite, dedicated to expressing the ancient values of the revered scholar- class of earlier times through the wholesale accumulation of culture both old and new. And so we are inclined to agree with Artprice’s prediction that the field of modern and contemporary painting is likely to be the one to watch over the next years.