Artist Magazine • June 2002

Yun Gee’s Early Paintings and Life Journey
by Tung Hsiao Chou
Artist Magazine
June 2002American Chinese Yun Gee

Born in Guangdong, China, enlighten by Western modernism in San Francisco, Paris, and New York, and afterwards respected by intellectuals in America and France, in particular, by the art world in Paris, Yun Gee (1906-1963) was an artist who studied thoroughly modern Western painting schools and specialized in colors. The artistic achievement of Yun Gee can be viewed from several different aspects. Besides that as an overseas Chinese painter, he played a significant role in the modernization of Chinese scholar paintings, Yun Gee was an excellent painter in the early development of European and American modernism. His work participated in important exhibitions, and was collected by well-known art museums. He occupied a seat in the history of European and American modern art as well.

Moreover, Yun Gee was an artist who definitely can not be ignored in the Asian art history of the American West Coast. In 1926, at age twenty only, he founded “Chinese Revolutionary Painters’ Club” as a center of local art community. By the time when Yun Gee arrived in San Francisco and immigrated to America was the moment of significant immigration wave coming from Japan and Philippine. These recent immigrants (generally meaning Asian immigrants from 1850 to 1965) naturally formed Asian immigrant circle when they tried to merge into new life. In the circle, there were great artists who devoted to art creation, and Yun Gee was one of them. This part of Asian American art history of the West Coast has been brought up to attention through researches by art historians in recent years.

Special Exhibition of Portraits

In the special exhibition “A Minimal Vision” at the Chambers Fine Art in Chelsea, New York, approximately thirty works by Yun Gee were shown, including oil paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Most of them are portraits. The primary exhibits are important paintings completed between 1926 and 1933 when he left homeland China and acquired artistic training in the Western academic system. This was a significant period when Yun Gee mastered skills and techniques of the format and style of Western modern paintings and gradually developed individual characters on colors and composition of oil paintings in the system of Cubism and Synchronism.

In the research essay of the exhibition catalogue, Robert E. Harrist, Jr., Professor of Chinese Art at the Columbia University, New York, addressed that the way Yun Gee applied planes of intense oil colors to form pictorial composition without preliminary sketch, and his drawings of Cubist styles, were deeply influenced by the artistic development in the Bay Area, San Francisco. The emphasis on the juxtaposition and arrangement of pictorial planes in order to build up forms in modernist paintings is totally different from the linear calligraphic Chinese guohua, traditional paintings of ink and brush. From the aspects of colors and composition techniques, Yun Gee’s work is fully Western modern painting.

Professor Harrist also pointed out that in some of Yun Gee’s paintings, however, revealed the connection between him and Chinese guohua through an alternative way – using Chinese characters for signature and dating works. This feature of inscribing works by writing, the juxtaposition of text and picture on the surface is absolutely unique in Chinese guohua. The Chinese practice of writing on pictures has no true parallel in Western art tradition. Although there are letters from newspaper clippings in analytic Cubist work, it is different from the true nature of inscriptions by Chinese painters that the text serves purely as text.

In addition, Professor Harrist mentioned that the subject matters of Yun Gee paintings involved Christianity. The religious category is one of the essences of Western art and culture. There were Yun Gee’s religious painting My Conception of Christ and three oil sketches of Last Supper on display in the special exhibition.

In fact, the development of Yun Gee styles of painting, the feature of inscriptions on pictorial surface, and the subject-matter of religion, are all closely related to his life journey. It would be hard to see those things separately. Throughout the life journey of Yun Gee, immigration to America can be regarded as the most significant first step. After he left home, his inner connection and missing homeland China, culture, and dearest mother reflected in his art creation more or less.

The signature and inscription appeared as traditional guohua in Yun Gee paintings explicated the link between him and Chinese culture, and implied the root sources of his young and teenage background. Yun Gee’s format and colors of early modern art has great relationship with his immigration to San Francisco and entering an art school. In addition, the choice of Christian culture as a subject for paintings and even poetry should be related to his personal belief as a Christian. The timing and opportunity to be baptized as a Christian began with his San Francisco immigration period.

Biography and Art Creation

Yun Gee’s artistic development was linked with his life experience, geography, and friendship. His life journey– departure from Guangdong, China, immigration to San Francisco, America, sailing for Paris, France and Spain in Europe, returning to New York, America, departing again for Paris, and finally settled in New York. The life experience across three continents enhanced his understanding on Western modern art, his broad and in-depth interest in literature, philosophy, music, and drama, and more importantly, it enriched the meaning and imagery of his paintings.

This essay will begin with Yun Gee’s early background of study and painting training and attempt to study the features of his art creation. The research timing will have Yun Gee’s young life experience as the starting point, and last ’till that he left his hometown and lived in San Francisco in the late 1920s. This study will search for the initial sources of the special inscriptions on pictures, modern painting style, and religious subjects. By picturing the content and methods of the Chinese traditional education for scholars received by Yun Gee, and through significant biographical details regarding the determination of his art career, from a budding artist of Chinese traditional paintings of ink and brush to traveling overseas to study Western modern paintings, this essay will be expected to provide better understanding of his art.

The reference of this essay is based on a few autobiographical writings by Yun Gee in English, including “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE” written by Yun Gee around August 1949, “The Biography of YUN GEE” of four pages, “RESUME” of one page, two-pages short essay on biography without title, “East and West Meet in Paris” of two pages, and “YUN GEE” biography of eight pages written by Reuben H. Menken and published in Who’s in China. All of these writings and documents are in the “Yun Gee Archives” collected by Li-lan Gee, Yun Gee’s only daughter.

Among those writings, the autobiographical writing of “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE” has eight chapters. It provides records of Yun Gee’s life experience from his young ages through the settle-down in New York at that time. All of the text was typed in English, nearly thirty pages. Yun Gee wrote down his own biography as the third person descried it. The later half part of this writing is more simplified, and some sentences were edited by hand writing. Although the “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE” was still in process with few edited sentences or attempted to write in different structure for the same content, as a whole, we should be able to better understand Yun Gee’s life experience in detail through his own writing. We also could know that how he wanted to be presented to later generations and how he hoped people to see all of the experiences throughout his life journey as well as his artistic achievement.

Of course, Yun Gee himself made the judgement of the content to be put in the autobiographical writings, and it is natural and understandable that he might subjectively filter, emphasize on, refine how he described his experience, or simplify something on purpose, even cut out the difficulties that he encountered. It should not affect the reliability of the facts mentioned in the writings. These writings should be able to complement the lack of his biographical details and to clarify some possible misunderstandings. As to what he described in great detail, we may assume that that part could be very important for him. In contrast, for something that he did not really care about, he could just mention it in few words or skip it. From his selection of adding and deleting content, we may learn more about this artist’s thinking. No matter what, these autobiographical writings provide an opportunity to see Yun Gee’s life journey through his eyes and pen.

His Young and Teenage Period in China

Yun Gee (Yun Chih Chu), originally named Wing Yun Chu, was born at Chu Village, Yanglu Town, Kaiping County, Guangdong Province, China. He was the second son of Quong On Chu and Wong See.1 According to the autobiographical writing “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE,” Yun Gee’s father was a learned scholar, and had passed the imperial examination with great honors. He left for San Francisco later, but returned to his hometown for a while due to the fire caused by the earthquake. The residence where Yun Gee spent his young years was a four-story house, and there was a garden beside the house. His father diverted a stream from the river nearby to flow through their garden. Yun Gee’s elder brother Wing Jong was the best companion in his childhood. Yun Gee adored the garden, and grew flowers and plants. He liked to play with and take care of beautiful birds frequented in the garden, and fished in the stream. His lifelong habit of befriending with birds to distill mind should be rooted in the good old days in childhood. Yun Gee’s deep feelings with birds can be seen in his poetry “My Speaking Bird’s Death.” 2 Yun Gee was born in a wealthy scholar family with field properties, and the family hired people to work for them in the field. 3

Yun Gee’s first schooling was from a private teacher Quong Tang who bestowed upon Yun Gee a scholar name “ Chih”, meaning Angelica, a kind of rare flower that grew by the Yuan River, symbolizing excellent personality and quality. 4 The scholar name “Chih” naturally implicated the great expectation from a teacher, and Yun Gee should understood that. From Yun Gee’s signature on the paintings of various periods, we know that this “Chih” followed him throughout his career. On the earliest oil paintings, he usually signed “Chih Yun” or “Yun Chih” in Chinese plus “Yun Gee” in English. In many documents and exhibition materials survived today, we can see that he used the name “Yun Chih Chu.”

Yun Gee began to practice calligraphy under the instruction of Quong Tang and two other specialty teachers. Besides learning Chinese characters, Yun Gee was instructed in fencing, sword dancing, and breathing exercise as well as Chinese musical instruments, such as the flute and lute.5 Yun Gee obviously enjoyed these basic enlighten training, because seeing from his photos and performance records, sword dancing and playing the flute and lute were always parts of his life. He also had several paintings and poetry with the subjects of music and instruments. His childhood life experience had great impact on him.

At the age of seven, Yun Gee went to a local school for higher learning. He learned about the ethics of Confucius, the laws of human behaviors, and numerous exercises of internal energy that all Chinese children must practice. As inspired by the democratic thoughts brought by Dr. Sun Yat Sen who was leading against the Conservative Government of the North, Yun Gee began to question the value of some of the teachings at school. He read something that the school did not teach, such as the literature of I Ling, poets by Li Po, and other great prophets of China. Yun Gee mentioned that at school, he came to be regarded as a boy with harmful ideas. When he was thirteen, he wrote an essay “The Morality of the Chinese in the Times of the Three Kingdoms.” His ideas presented in the essay were so unusual that they caused consternation among his instructors and eventually he was expelled from the school. 6 The exact content of this essay is unknown, but we probably can assume that at the teenage period, Yun Gee had the ability of independent thinking and could make judgement by himself.

During his study at school, Yun Gee should have acquired basic knowledge on Chinese classic literature, and his interest on Chinese ancient classics and philosophy could be inspired. Especially the philosophy of Confucius and Lao-tze and Poem by Li Po, Yun Gee expressed his admiration in the paintings, sculpture, essays and poems in both Chinese and English.

Inscription as in Chinese Guohua

The connection between Yun Gee and the Chinese culture was also expressed in the special inscription as in Chinese guohua. This kind of inscription was common especially on his work during 1920s. At the special exhibition “A Minimal Vision”, in the Man in a Red Chair (1926) and Head of A Man (1927), Yun Gee inscribed the paintings using the system of dating by the Republic of China. It hints that although living abroad, Yun Gee had the homeland in his mind. 7 Several drawings shown at the exhibition bear a seal stamped in purple ink with Yun Gee’s name both in letters and Chinese characters. 8

Among other works not included at the exhibition, the “Confucius” and Abstract Figure had Yun Gee’s inscriptions. In Confucius, completed between 1928 and 1929, Yun Gee once inscribed lengthy text which was his understanding of Confucius’ philosophy. 9 The inscription however was erased later after revising the painting. The Abstract Figure  during the San Francisco period presents a geometrically abstract figure playing musical instrument similar to Chinese lute. At the right-hand side of the background, there seems to be another figure. The format of the paintings is a vertical rectangle, which reminds us the tall scroll of Chinese traditional painting. At the left-hand edge of the paintings, Yun Gee inscribed a short poem. 10

Sometimes, Yun Gee used another signature named by himself – “Blue Five Continent Chih Yun” for his paintings. 11 Among the exhibits, the title of a self-portrait The Blue Yun, finished in 1929, would have named after “Blue Five Continent Chih Yun.” 12 Another drawing at the exhibition Two Figures bears this name. On the top right corner of the drawing, Yun Gee inscribed “Yun Gee Blue Five Continent Chih Yun Paris.” It recorded that the drawing was made in Paris, France, but no dating. There are a few drawings excluded from the exhibition signed with this particular name without dates.

The title “Blue Five Continent Chih Yun” was assumed to appear after Yun Gee arrived in France in 1927. The title given by himself could reflect his life journey across continents. He once again sailed for another continent, and stepped on Europe. In the back of the invitation card of his solo exhibition Chez Mm. Berheim-Jeune in June 1929, Yun Gee practiced calligraphy for a short text and formally signed “Blue Five Continent Chih Yun.” At that time, Yun Gee was successful and recognized by intellectuals in the capital of the world art. For Yun Gee, a self-acclaimed “born traveler,” the title “Blue Five Continent Chih Yun” may imply the self-expectation that he would be at ease wherever he went around the world. 13

In addition, a few of Yun Gee’s paintings appear to have inscriptions by other people, such as Chinese Man in Hat (1928) and Spirit of the Resistance (no date). In Spirit of the Resistance, the two-phrase Chinese inscription was written by Wen-shan. 14 The person who inscribed for the Chinese Man in Hat was Fu Chau Fa, the model in the painting. The inscription was Fu Chau Fa’s reknown and published poem. In some Chinese print materials collected by Yun Gee, there were reports on Fu Chau Fa, his poems and his photos. From the same hometown, Guangdong, Fu Chau Fa was fluent in Spanish, working as the chief foreign editor for “Chinese Ink Newspaper” stationed in America. He had another title “Creation Master”, wrote poems to advise people to do good things, and published a book “ Creation Philosophy.” The dating on the picture appears “French capital, summer of the Republic Year 17”. As other material shows that Fu Chau Fa traveled to Europe around 1928, the timing coincided with the date when Yun Gee painted this portrait. 15 From the fact that Yun Gee completed a portrait of Fu Chau Fa and the painting was inscribed by Fu Chau Fa, we may assume that Yun Gee befriended with Fu Chau Fa. Since around that time Fu Chau Fa traveled all around the Europe and stayed at Madrid, the capital of Spain in the autumn of the same year, there might be some connection between Yun Gee’s trip to Spain. The exact time when Yun Gee went to Spain was unavailable, but generally we believe that Yun Gee spent six months in Spain around 1928. 16

The Earliest Experience of Painting in China

In several autobiographical writings, Yun Gee mentioned that he studied Chinese ink painting in his teenage period. Among them, in the first paragraph of his essay “East and West Meet in Paris”, he wrote:

I had studied watercolor painting in China under the master Chu, and having learned the techniques of the Chinese masters I naturally desired to become acquainted with the masters of the west. 17

This essay “East and West Meet in Paris” by Yun Gee was published on the pages 282 and 283 of an unknown book. He wrote it in the September of 1944 in New York. The content of the writing should have reliability. This experience of studying painting under the master was stated again, as the third person, in another two-page short essay on biography without title. “He began his study of painting in China under the master Sing Chu…”18

From these materials, Yun Gee studied under the master Chu, and this master could be one of the members of the Chu Lien family who achieved fame in the Kuangdong art circles. 19

Moreover, in the “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE,” Yun Gee mentioned that in his teens in hometown, around the period when he studied at an area school, approximately at the age of thirteen, he began to learn about art and had great interest in paintings already.

It was at this time that Yun made his first attempt at brush work and water colors. In accordance with his newly awakened spirit, Yun chose as his first subject Koun Yu, the famous warrior saint of China, a subject which presented itself to Yun’s subconscious mind in a dream. 20

In this writing, Yun Gee did not specify whether he studied under a master or not, however, if following the format of the traditional scholar education that he received, we could assume that there should be a teacher to instruct him in painting. Nevertheless, it is hard to verify if Yun Gee studied under the master Chu mentioned above at this time right in his home village area, or he did not meet with the master Chu until he later stayed in Canton City for six months.

In the “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE,” Yun Gee continued to narrate that although his paintings pleased general audience, he was not satisfied with it. He thought that he did not well present the dimension and essence of his subjects. For a time, he studied masterpieces to concentrate on the light, color, and luminous effects in particular. The problem of bringing out the spirit was still always in his mind. By that time, “His interest was definitely in Art…”21

The purpose of these few paragraphs in the autobiographical writing probably was just to emphasize that the young Yun Gee had already set art as his object for the future and also that he faced difficulties in his Chinese ink paintings.

The Chance to Study Art Abroad

Based on the “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE,” after an accidental chance that Yun Gee saw a Western oil painting, the idea of studying Western art was raised up in his mind. His father had immigrated to San Francisco, therefore, Yun Gee followed his steps to leave for a foreign country and began his art and life journey across three continents since then.

Yun Gee wrote that he was not satisfied with his paintings and his parents decided that he required different surroundings. By this time, one of his cousins returned from San Francisco and brought back a landscape in oils which interested Yun Gee in the possibilities of Western art. Since his father had long re-established himself in San Francisco and possessed citizenship, it was decided that Yun Gee should go to America to join his father. 22

In the “YUN GEE” biography, it was mentioned that he had heard from many of his young friends, of America where the young intellectuals of China would go to study the sciences and the civilization of the West. He decided to come here, but in his case it was the Art of the West that lured him on. 23

For the above reasons, it seems natural that Yun Gee would go to San Francisco for his study and career. Just for this fourteen years old boy, the most difficult part of leaving home was to depart from his dearest lovely mother. Yun Gee never saw his mother again. In 1923, two years after his arrival in America, his mother died from sickness at hometown. 24 Yun Gee’s painting and poem Where is My Mother express his deep feelings towards her.

As described in the “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE”, before Yun Gee headed for San Francisco, he stayed six months in Canton, the motherland of revolution. This period of sojourn had a great influence on Yun Gee on the enlightenment of democratic thought. In order to prepare for the immigration, Yun Gee traveled to the big city Canton first where he spend six months to practice oral English and learn more about the world. He had a companion, his one-year younger brother Yuen (Wing En Chu), and they were together for San Francisco. These two brothers were greeted by his uncle Won Foo who was a close friend and supporter of Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Thus Yun Gee had the chance to enter to the very center of activities in Dr. Sun’s quarters, and met many persons there. Yun Gee was fascinated by the excitement of democratic ideas. 25

Yun Gee did not mention anything about painting in the chapter on the Canton trip in the “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE.” From the writing, what we are sure about is that for Yun Gee, the most excited and impressed part of Canton is to be able to take a look at the core of Chinese democratic waves through Won Foo. Later on, after the immigration, Yun Gee supported the Nationalists and concerned people in homeland all the time in his life, especially when they suffered from disasters. Even when his economic situation was tight, he made donations and had charity exhibitions to help people back in China to pass through flood, disaster, and wars. He also drew cynical political cartoon against Hitler and Japan, joined radio program, and wrote to the President of the United States Truman to ask for his support on China. He tried his best to do something for his homeland. 26

After Yun Gee and his younger brother left Canton, they went to Hong Kong, the international city in the south of China, to be ready for taking the ship to America. Via a Japanese vessel Maro, the two boys departed for San Francisco. One month later, they arrived at the new continent, and Yun Gee was ready for a new life. 27

San Francisco and Modern Paintings

In 1921, at the age of fifteen, Yun Gee came to San Francisco to receive training on Western modern paintings. He learned about painting schools of European Modernism, and entered an academic art school for study. Just arriving at a foreign place, he was curious to see all of the skyscrapers around him and the Golden Gate Bridge. He was also very sensitive and noticed that the blue-gray sky brought with sunset was different to blue-green sky of China. 28 At that time, images suffused by bright light and colors were the feature in the works of a school of California impressionism established in the Bay Area. In fact, the influence of European modern paintings had been extended to San Francisco through Panama-Pacific International Exposition in the 1910s. 29

Yun Gee entered the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, now as San Francisco Art Institute, in 1925, and studied under Otis Oldfield who remained his lifelong friend. Otis Oldfield, and Yun Gee’s friends, Piazzano and Labaudt, were all painters of modernist styles, and they had great knowledge on schools of European modern paintings. They encouraged Yun Gee to adapt Cubist pictorial structure and use color zones to express his personal styles. These kinds of techniques for painting were exactly what Yun Gee needed for his creation. 30

In the biographical essay “Yun Gee,” Yun Gee mentioned that after he acquired all of the knowledge on Western art and painting skills from the academic system, he decided that he would not be confined within the academic circle and should find his own path. He determined to destroy two hundred something works done during the school period. To him, this act represented a symbolic gesture to cut off the past and move forward to the future. He would hope to truly free his art from academic limitation. 31

After Yun Gee left the school, he had solo and group exhibitions and became known to the art world in San Francisco. Meanwhile, he organized The Chinese Revolutionary Painters Club to teach local Chinese what he knew about art. The Painters Club was under the sponsorship of two prominent countrymen, Pain-Chaing, a friend of Dr. Sun, and Dr. Yung, a well-known local writer. 32 Teaching painting at the Painters Club was the first experience of art education for Yun Gee, and it was also the beginning of his career in art education to introduce Diamondism, his concept on painting later. 33

In July 1927, supported and encouraged by his French friends Prince and Princess Achille Murat, Yun Gee departed for Paris by sailing. After a stop in New York for a month for visa and waiting for a big ship to cross Atlantic, Yun Gee finally arrived at Europe and began another period in his art career.

Christianity Belief and Religious Paintings

During the San Francisco period, Yun Gee had the opportunity to learn about Christianity, and was very interested in masterpieces of religious paintings in the history of art. According to the “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE,” before attending the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, Yun Gee went to a public school in Kentfield to improve his English with his younger brother. During this period of time, they became Christians, and through religious paintings Yun Gee learned more about Western classic masters and painting schools.

At school the boys became interested in Christianity and were later baptized Protestants. Yun helped to organize and teach the newly arrived Chinese in the ‘First Chinese Christian Church of San Francisco’

Yun’s interest in Art attracted him to the religious paintings of the Old Masters that he saw. He made copies of some of them and became successful at it. Within the Christian circle he learned Western Philosophy. His interest in Art was intensified. He went on to study the schools of the Masters whose work he noticed among religious pictures. He learned selection as well as the schools of the great masters.

Yun Gee was baptized as Christian, and religious painting was the bridge for him to learn about Western paintings. Since religious paintings combined his personal belief and artistic interest, he had a few paintings, drawings and poems with the subject of Christianity and religious stories. “My Conception of Christ” (1926) at the exhibition was one of the examples.

The three studies in oils of Last Supper among the exhibits were the preparation for a large-scale altar piece for the commission of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Bronx, New York City. The “Last Supper” was taken off shortly after installation, due to that the conservative Church could not accept Yun Gee’s modern style. The current location of this altar piece is unknown. From the black and white photo survived, the composition of the Last Supper  by Yun Gee was a radical departure from the usual religious painting. The diagonal arrangement in Yun Gee’s work was different from the horizontal perspective in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Yun Gee placed Christ at the left top corner and Judas at the right bottom corner, while Da Vinci had Christ in the very center and Judas as the fourth person from the left. 35 Yun Gee used two core figures at the starting points of the diagonal composition, and connected all of the other figures with the huge dining table. This pictorial arrangement expressed strength passing through the whole picture. We should also note that on the right, there was a small landscape of Chinese ink painting. This style and motif of traditional guohua was rare in Yun Gee’s work. 36

Rooted from China and Merged in Western World

In the “Biography and Criticism of YUN GEE,” Yun Gee self-acclaimed as a Modern Chinese painter. From this, we might tell that for him modern paintings and Chinese identity were of equal importance. 37 On one hand, he devoted himself to Western art, especially modern paintings, and he tried to submerged into Western society, culture, and local languages. His writings, poems, letters and other materials survived are primarily in English and French. Chinese documents are just very small part of the archives. On the other hand, the connection to China is revealed in Yun Gee’s modernist paintings. It is believed that he always remembered the original root of his race and culture.