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10 May, 2018 / by Jessie Kwok

From the Collections: 'Longevity Triptych' by Yuan Jai

Ink and colour painting on silk in three parts. The middle section depicts a colourful garden view and small peach tree with nine ripped peaches interspersed amongst red blossoms. In a landscape-oriented rectangular above this tree is another painting of a branch with nine green peaches hanging off it. On either side of this middle section are two narrow vertical rectangles with red frames, each containing three circles sitting from top to down on a pastel colour background with a branch sprouting flowers. The top circle on the right depicts a peach on a flowering branch, while the top circle on the left side depicts a large peach adorned with three flowers. The middle circle on both sides depicts a large peony, with the one on the right rendered in brighter colours. The bottom circles on both sides depicts a rock formation viewed from the front and back.

Yuan Jai, Longevity Triptych, 2006, ink and colour on silk, M+, Hong Kong. © Yuan Jai

Longevity Triptych by Yuan Jai is in the M+ Collections, but what is it, who made it, and why did M+ acquire it? Jessie Kwok, M+ Curatorial Assistant, explains.

Hi Jessie. Can you introduce us to this work?

Longevity Triptych from 2006 is a set of ink and colour paintings on silk by Taiwanese artist Yuan Jai. Adopting the forms of Chinese wall hangings—which typically include a centrepiece and a couplet—the work taps into the customary practice of celebrating longevity with rich, auspicious imagery. At the same time, it reinvents tradition by replacing calligraphy written on red paper with a fantastical palette and pictorial composition.

The centrepiece Nine Peaches references a Qing-dynasty imperial motif in decorative arts, in which the number and the fruit represent both longevity and blessing. The motif is first rendered as a branch of unripe peaches at the top section of the centrepiece, and then as a fertile peach tree in an enchanted garden landscape. A pine tree at the lower right corner stands in as the Chinese character for longevity (shou 壽). The couplet features three pairs of still-life objects in place of calligraphic texts. In each pair, a motif is introduced on the right and its variation on the left: a branch of peach blossoms and fruit is shifted to a magnified peach with floral embellishment; peonies, symbolising wealth, are painted in coral shades and then reversed in light and shade; a scholar’s stone, representing otherworldly places in nature, is pictured in frontal view and then back.

A detail crop of an ink and colour painting depicting a colourful garden view and small peach tree with nine ripped peaches interspersed amongst red blossoms.

Yuan Jai, Longevity Triptych (detail), 2006, ink and colour on silk, M+, Hong Kong. © Yuan Jai

Free to be displayed as a triptych, a couplet, or just the centrepiece on its own (as Nine Peaches), the work fully explores the variations of traditional wall-hanging formats and the richness of Chinese visual cultural symbols with a modern twist.

Who is the artist?

Born in China in 1941, Yuan Jai graduated from the Division of Chinese Painting, Department of Art at the National Taiwan Normal University in 1962. After receiving an MA degree from the Department of Archaeology and Art History, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium in 1966 and completing doctoral courses at Institut royal du Patrimoine artistique, Belgium in 1968, she returned to Taipei and began her career as a conservator at the National Palace Museum for over three decades.

Ink and colour painting on silk of a mass of light, long, narrow, curvy shapes on top of a bright pink background. The right edge of the background is furnished with white polka dot pattern.

Another work by Yuan Jai. Yuan Jai, Fair and Clear II, 2006, ink and colour on silk, M+, Hong Kong. © Yuan Jai

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Yuan re-established her painting practice with ink landscapes, experimenting with abstract compositions and colour combinations. She gradually developed her distinct artistic gongbi (‘meticulous brush’) style as she started to work more frequently with ink on silk, allowing her to apply thicker layers of colours than on paper, which she considers as more closely representing modern visual experiences and material culture. Inspired by Chinese blue-green landscape paintings, figurative painting, and the heritage of folk culture, as well as Western artistic movements such as Art Nouveau and Surrealism, her playful works explore the intersection of the splendid and the everyday.

Close up of an ink and colour painting on silk of a mass of light, long, narrow, curvy shapes on top of a bright pink background. The right edge of the background is furnished with white polka dot pattern.

Yuan Jai, Fair and Clear II (detail), 2006, ink and colour on silk, M+, Hong Kong. © Yuan Jai

Why is this in the M+ Collections?

Yuan Jai, a highly skilled painter and well-versed cultural historian, represents a singular force in colour painting among ink artists working predominantly in monochrome. Her painting style, enriched by her experience with Chinese antiquities and material culture, is an eloquent counterpoint to her contemporaries devoted to abstraction, arguably the most circulated language of painting in the twentieth century. This particular work is a fine example of the artist’s exploration of Chinese visual culture; combining decorative arts and festive celebration, it manifests her masterful skills and knowledge in revitalising traditional customs and artistic genres.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Jessie Kwok is Curatorial Assistant, Visual Art at M+.

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