Eternity in Transience : Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery

2 May - 29 Jun 2024

Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery is delighted to present Eternity in Transience, a group exhibition focusing on floral still-life paintings, as part of the associated project of the French May Arts Festival.


Centered around a 1930s masterpiece by Sanyu, the exhibition bridges historical and contemporary interpretations of the genre by connecting to 17th-century Flemish painter Wouter Mertens and juxtaposing with over ten works by modernist masters Bernard Cathelin, Pierre Boncompain, and Michel Henry, along with contemporary artists such as Ziad Dalloul, Denis Laget, Atsushi Suwa, Takanobu Kobayashi, Sky Glabush and Choi Soo Jung.


Still life painting has evolved from mere realistic depiction to a medium for artistic contemplation and expression. In the 17th century, still lifes were displays of wealth and abundance through meticulous execution and mastery use of light. With the rise of modern art in the 19th century, the genre transcended representation, artistic concern turning to the expressiveness of form, colour, composition, and also the use of symbolism. Contemporary artists have further expanded the genre to integrate emotions, philosophical thoughts and artistic concepts.


“Still life,” derived from the Dutch “stilleven,” is known as “nature morte” in French. Before the 15th century, still life elements primarily adorned religious paintings. In the 17th century, they flourished in the Dutch and Flemish regions, fueled by booming maritime trade. During this time, the burgeoning middle class used these paintings to showcase their wealth and taste. This era also marked the rise of “Pronkstilleven,” or sumptuous still lifes, featuring meticulously rendered treasures like silverware, porcelain, and exotic fruits with lifelike vibrancy. Conversely, “vanitas” still lifes depicted symbols such as wilting flowers, skulls, and hourglasses, reflecting on the transience of life.


This exhibition revisits the origins of still life painting with Wouter Mertens, whose works were inspired by master Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1683). His vividly realistic depiction of fruits in Floral Triumph with Putto and Nymph Heads exemplifies the era’s demand for exquisite artistry, with the realism of the artwork serving as a benchmark for the artist's skill.


After the 18th century, European academies included still life painting in their basic curriculum, although it was considered less prestigious than history paintings, which depicted nobility and authority. The development of modern art led artists to employ this subject to demonstrate new techniques and explore novel ideas. A highlight of the exhibition is Sanyu's precious early work from the 1930s, Compote of Fruits, Basket of Flowers, Cup and Saucer, showcasing the innovative evolution of this genre in the 20th century.


Sanyu, who moved to Paris in 1920, joined artists like Modigliani from Italy, Chagall from Russia, and Fujita from Japan, in enriching the diverse cultures and creative life of the cultural capital. His paintings blend the expressiveness of Chinese calligraphy and Eastern aesthetics with Western modernist principles from Cézanne and Matisse. Breaking traditional rules of perspective, this work portrays objects like a small table, flower basket, cup and plate from different viewpoints within the same space, which is divided by a black swath on top; with simple lines and delicate colour gradients subtly suggesting volume.


Cézanne's innovative exploration of painting's structure, along with the Fauvist use of bold colours and sensual expression, advanced still life into a more subjective and abstract realm. Modernist masters Bernard Cathelin and Pierre Boncompain, from the School of Paris, followed this trajectory. Cathelin, influenced by Fauvist colours and the dreamy tones of Les Nabis, reflected his global travels to France's Drôme, Mexico, India, and Japan in his palette, using thick paint and a palette knife to capture the essence of flowers.


Boncompain's work features composition grounded by brightly blue tablecloth with red bird pattern. His rhythmic arrangement of objects and brushwork capture light and shadow, evoking the relaxed ambiance of Provence in the south of France. Despite its modest dimensions, Michel Henry contrasts delicate interior florals with the expansive backdrop of Venice. Executed with both energetic and delicate Impressionist strokes, the painting captures the grandeur of its setting through the intimate lens of still life.


Contemporary artists use still life to encapsulate emotions and ideas, breaking cultural and conceptual boundaries through various artistic experiments, thereby rejuvenating the genre and showcasing its vast potential.


Merging the internal and external worlds, French-Syrian artist Ziad Dalloul's works contemplate the essence of existence. Rejecting the French term "nature morte" (literally "dead nature”), he opts for "nature silencieuse" (silent nature), derived from Arabic. In his work, everyday objects like beds, tables, and curtains transcend their functionality to symbolize life and death, knowledge, communion, and mystery.


French contemporary artist Denis Laget's paintings radiate a distinct and intense beauty. Despite their small scale, they feature a rough texture imbued with rich, murky colours that convey a sense of impure aesthetics. Delving into the vanitas tradition, his depictions of decaying bouquets emphasize sensuality and remind viewers of the transience of material things.


Two Japanese contemporary artists, Atsushi Suwa and Takanobu Kobayashi, use still life to deconstruct reality. Atsushi Suwa's hyperrealistic paintings bewilder the senses, blurring the lines between reality and illusion. The black spots or flares in his paintings faithfully reproduce his visual conditions of scintillating scotoma, leading viewers to rethink the nature of reality and perception. Takanobu Kobayashi enriches ordinary objects with meditative qualities through detailed portrayals and a muted colour palette, deeply connecting objects with personal emotions and the broader world.


Korean artist Choi Soo Jung stitches on canvas to create tactile sensations and reconstructs scenes based on digital colour mechanisms, crafting three-dimensional forms and visual illusions. Canadian mid-generation artist Sky Glabush subverts traditional painting paradigms by presenting still life through the lens of history. He often mixes sand into his paint to enhance the texture of the surface where colours interplay vibrantly. Both artists infuse still life with rich sensory dimensions.


Eternity in Transience reveals still life's profound ability to capture the essence of eras and evolution of artistic thought. What began as a straightforward depiction of the physical world now encapsulates the intangible — capturing emotional depths, cultural dialogues, and infinite creative possibilities. Still life stands as a timeless legacy, inspiring continuous exploration and artistic evolution.