28 September 2012 Hong Kong Economic Journal talks about the recluse master Huang Yao



Yang Tian Shuai

The Recluse Master Huang Yao

Expresses Chinese Modern Artistic Beauty in Malaya

In the early twentieth century, France was the Chinese artists' dream country. Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, Chang Yu, Wu Dayu, Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou-ki, Zhu Dequn, all flocked to France. They went all the way to study the French art. Some gained fortune and settled there. While others after their studies, returned to China and became masters of their own schools of art.

But Huang Yao did not take this route. In 1947, in order to avoid the war he began his wandering life, and finally in 1956 settled in Malaya. There, he began his experimentations. He had been doing that persistently, continuously painting in earnest and seriousness, paintings filled with childlike playfulness and laughter. He did not care whether his artworks would be exhibited, nor was he concerned about whether he would be renowned and wealthy. After all, he was in Malaya, not Europe or the United States.

If one were to mention the name Huang Yao, it is likely that many experts versed in modern art have not heard of him. As for many contemporary artists who are painstakingly trying to open a new path in ink painting, they would not know that their desired effects might have long been accomplished by an unknown predecessor, and with superb result.

Worldly matters, no matter how complex, seem always to fall within a few well-known principles. One is "the grass over the fence is greener”.  Picasso in France did not think that the European art was the best, instead he remarked that real art was to be found in China and Africa. As for the West? He categorically replied that there was no art at all.

People today, from an objective point of view, can easily see that it was an era when there was a blending of the East and West. Whether it was Picasso or Zhang Daqian, they were trying every possible way to learn from each other, applying what was learnt from the East in the Western paintings and vice versa. Huang Yao's works undoubtedly contain these elements. However, being alone and independent minded in Southeast Asia, his style was different from all the well-known and reputed masters.

Huang Yao was born in 1917; he entered the Shanghai art circle in the 1930s as a cartoonist. At nineteen, he was art editor of the newspaper “Xinwen Bao”. Whilst breaking news is popular with the media today, what was popular then with newspapers was comics. Huang Yao was tasked to create a new cartoon character for the "Xinwen Bao", in order to increase sales of the newspaper. He spent many days observing passersbys' appearances and actions, but he was not inspired. It was whilst sitting in front of the mirror, making monkey faces at himself that he finally found the prototype of his new cartoon character. With his pen, he sketched his round face wearing round glasses, and named the character “Niubizi” ─ Later,  “Niubizi” became good friends with “San Mao”, the cartoon character created by Zhang Leping.


A righteous Niubizi

Initially Niubizi was only a projection of the people in Shanghai in the 1930s. Less than a year after its birth, he served as a critic of the Nationalist government of Jiang Jieshi; in that prevailing society, it was a very courageous behavior. In 1937, with the Japanese invasion of China, Niubizi transformed into a patriot calling the Chinese to participate in the resistance.

In 1947, Huang Yao left China with his wife and three year old son to Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam. In this period, he no longer painted cartoons, but he was a businessman with operations in various industries. There was rapid development and at its peak, he started a bank. In 1956, Huang Yao was invited to Malaya by its minister of education Tun Abdul Razak Hussein who later became the second prime minister of the country. The family immigrated to Malaya.

As to how Huang Yao knew Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, why he would choose to leave China, what kind of experience he had during this period, so far it is still kind of a mystery, to be answered by his granddaughter Huang Danrong later.

In 2001, Huang Danrong established the Huang Yao Foundation to put in order and research her grandfather's artworks, so as to promote and establish Huang Yao's rightful place in the history of art. Later, she resigned as a portfolio manager in New York's Fischer Francis Trees & Watts investment company to concentrate on the care of the Foundation's affairs.

When the reporter met Huang Danrong, she handed him a business card, with designation not "President" or "Director", but just "granddaughter".

“He was the best grandfather a child could have,” remarked Huang Danrong. “He was patient, had many stories to tell, loved children and he could relate and interact with us at a very creative and fun level.”
When Huang Danrong was a child, she used to help her grandfather wash his brushes and put away his completed paintings to dry. He would draw small animals for her to fill in the color. She remembers his animals were each completed with one continuous stroke. For a very long time, she thought the rule to drawing was that “one cannot lift up the pencil while drawing, until the picture is completed”. When Huang Danrong and her brother got into a fight, the grandfather would distract them by coming up with something interesting that needed their attention, like the plants that would close their leaves when they were touched. Of course besides playing, there was also serious education. He would teach Huang Danrong how to paint to complete her homework from school. She can remember a lot of his advise, in particular the one from Thomas Edison, “ Success is from 10% of inspiration and 90% perspiration”

Huang Danrong did not know her grandfather had such a profound artistic background, she was still very young, and even once thought every family's grandfather knows how to paint. It was not until 1998, after the death of her grandmother, Huang Yao's wife, that she found her grandfather's old paintings. In 1999, a publishing company from China contacted Huang Yao's family to re-publish Huang Yao's 1930s cartoons, and the matter aroused Huang Danrong's curiosity towards her grandfather’s work in China. After personally visiting China in her search, she discovered her grandfather's identity was not simple at all.


Innovation of Wenzi Hua (Calligraphy and painting of ancient Chinese characters)

Since the establishment of the Foundation till now, Huang Danrong has collected four thousand pieces of Huang Yao's artworks, including sketches and unfinished works, covering a period of four decades, from 1947 until his death in 1987. "He experimented with many types of paintings in traditional categories like calligraphy, portraits, landscapes, flowers, birds, animals, etc.. In addition there is his innovation Wenzi Hua, these paintings are a blend of the Chinese pictograph, calligraphy and painting, as well as having a Western abstract flavor. "

For the Hong Kong International Art and Antiques Fair from 4th to 7th October, the Foundation has selected about fifty paintings for display and for sale. On being asked how the paintings were selected, Huang Danrong replied: "Our aim is to show our grandfather's most outstanding works. Those works must reflect his style and values. He believed that only with the innocence of a child can the best art be created. Throughout his life, he held a child-like way of thinking in his work, this concept can be seen in particular in his paintings of children."

Where Huang Yao is concerned, an artist must not only know how to paint, but must also be proficient in calligraphy, and possess deep understanding of history and philosophy, to add depth to the paintings. So, his zodiac paintings were broadened, and depth added, with folklore and literary stories. In addition, because of his special liking for poetry, he actively used poems in his paintings. Huang Yao's favorite poem is Tao Yuanming's "Returning Home"; the phrase “The clouds emerge naturally from the hills" inspired him to write that imitated the form of clouds rising. He was able to achieve it by writing the characters upside down from bottom of page up, in order to capture this “innocent child's” image. The words of many of his works were written this way. Just this alone, is already rare in the history of Chinese art. Huang Yao's painting of  "Returning Home” will be brought by the foundation to Hong Kong to be displayed.

In addition, the Foundation will also choose a few pieces of paintings on longevity or harmony to express Huang Yao's wishes for all people on earth to be healthy, living in peace and harmony.

In conjunction with the Hong Kong International Art and Antiques Fair, an exhibition of some of the paintings is held in the Upper House Hotel. The Foundation will display two of Huang Yao's Wenzi Hua or the paintings of ancient Chinese characters. They are “Let us drink to the Moon” and "A Hundred Years of Bliss". This series of paintings had never been displayed in public and they are not for sale yet. The Wenzi Hua series is the product of novel conception, where the calligraphy is based on the form and meaning of the Chinese pictograph, but the human figures are infused with the cartoon style in color and humor, resulting in livening up the heavily academic flavor of the ancient characters.


A new star in auction market

One of the goals of the Foundation is to improve Huang Yao's visibility in the commercial market, in order to enhance his position in the art circle, thereby allowing more people in art to know this “forgotten” painter. In November, Christie will auction three works of Huang Yao. They are  "On the Dragon", "Roll Coin" and "The Whole World in a Toss”.  Huang Danrong commented that the auction house experts selected these works. The "Dragon" depicts the Emperor riding a flying dragon, while “Roll Coin "and" the Whole world in a Toss" have children's games as theme. 

In the art world, Huang Yao of course, is a veteran, but in the market, he is still a novice. There is no trading record in the past, so it is not easy to measure its investment value. However, the reference number is still there. In May this year, the Foundation for the first time put Huang Yao's painting for auction. The painting “Immortal Chess Players”, valued at $150,000 - $200,000 Hong Kong dollars, ultimately, was auctioned by Christie's for more than three times the estimated price. It was sold for $680,000. Perhaps this can be seen as a sign that Huang Yao's works will be recognised by today's modern art world.

The paintings in both auctions have a style that tends towards simplicity and are clearly paintings of human figures. But in Huang Yao's lifelong creative paintings, the most amazing collection is his innovative Wenzi Hua, the calligraphy and painting of ancient Chinese characters. The foundation is probably aware of it too. So, you now know why the Wenzi Hua are shown but not for sale─ ─ the best thing will always be kept for the last.

"Despite of all the experiences in the turbulent history of China, Huang Yao retained his childlike innocence and was able to be 'happy like an immortal' when he painted," Huang Danrong said, continuing that, "In Malaya, he became principal of the school in a small town for twelve years. Here, in peaceful and tranquil environment, he researched in depth China’s ancient writing and turned them into paintings. These paintings look modern and of western abstract style, but are actually of ancient Chinese characters, thus fulfilling his wish to leave something enduring that can be enjoy by all people on earth in prosperity and peace.”


English signature

Interestingly, as Huang Yao lived in Nanyang, how could he have been influenced by Western art concepts? The answer to the question, directly determines the similarities and differences from the masters who had studied in the West. The answer dating back to his earliest cartoonist period: in the 1930s, cartoon was a new art form, it appeared in China, but originated in the West. Despite the fact that Niubizi was drawn with Chinese brush strokes, and with Chinese humour, and the satire was also about China's ills, Huang Yao's cartoons in Shanghai, were all signed with the English name “W. Buffoon” (“Buffoon” meaning circus clown) as signature. It may reflect that the art and culture of the West, had long been rooted in the heart of the painter.

When Huang Danrong reread Huang Yao’s writings and records, she found the names of several Western artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso and Matisse mentioned. She said Huang Yao had compared these masters' creative works with the traditional Chinese painting, thus showing that Huang Yao more or less had been influenced by these Western masters.

“Huang Yao claimed that western water colour and Chinese ink and color paintings are similar, but the paintings look different because of their use of different painting tools, different painting methods and art philosophies. So the Chinese brush and painting technique can also be used on Western oil painting,” said Huang Danrong. "He demonstrated it with his collection of western looking abstract paintings. However, should one examine them closer, it can be found that many of them have their origins from ancient Chinese pictograph or the beautiful designs of Chinese artifacts.”

In addition to different ways of being influenced by the West, another point where Huang Yao is different from masters such as Zhang Daqian, Lin Fengmian and other masters is the folk flavor in his works. Speaking from the perspective of art history, the beginning of the twentieth century is generally considered the period of Chinese art borrowing from the West, the developmental period. But in practice, however, the so-called "Chinese Art" was still dominated by the literati paintings. Popular art such as cartoon, at that time was considered as "craft”, which the artistic circles attached no importance. Huang Yao who began as cartoonist, was different, he is particularly concerned about the distance of art works from the public. So, he opened up a way for himself, a different development in Chinese art.

“In Huang Yao' extensive travels, meeting Chinese of all classes, learned or illiterate, rich or poor, young or old, he was interested in their folk culture. Folk paintings are symbols of hope for a better future and what matters most for ordinary people. Traditional Chinese painters usually distain them but to Huang Yao they are the voices of people. The children paintings, the 12 zodiacs, the gods of longevity and harmony are all works of art." Huang Danrong said.

In the development of world art trends of the 21st century, it seems that the momentum is toward democratization. More and more people stressed that art should have no boundary; it should not be the plaything of a handful of people. Probably very few people know that Huang Yao was already doing that long ago. As Director of Singapore Art Museum Guo Jian Chao had said: "Huang Yao democratized Chinese art. He is telling you, appreciation of the Chinese culture is not for only the elite. I consider this as why his art is precious.”

Written by: Yang Tianshuai, gyeung@hkej.com

Minor corrections have been made by the Huang Yao Foundation on this copy from the original published article