"Ding passionately rallied behind the Western Painting Movement in Shanghai together with Chen Baoyi and Guan Liang upon his return to China in 1925. Nevertheless, his sensitivity and sensibility towards the spirit of the time and his passion for innovation earned him nothing but alienation from his peers. He later embarked on the long journey of synthesising Chinese and Western art through studying the paintings of Bada Shanren, Shitao and Jin Nong, collecting artifacts for study and producing both oil and ink paintings from the 1930s onwards."
Ding Yanyong was born on 15 April 1902, and lived in Moaming County, Guangdong Province. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Ding was among one of the first Chinese artists to move to Japan so he could study Western painting. Ding was hailed as a pioneer in the New Art Movement, the fusion of Western art into Chinese painting. Ding was known as the “Matisse of the East” and was one of the leading figures involved in giving Chinese traditional painting a modern twist.
Ding attended a primary school in his home village of Maopo after being tutored at home by his father, Ding Genci. As a child his talents were clearly seen to lie in painting and calligraphy, a talent which his family and teachers encouraged him to develop. Following 4 years at the Maoming County Middle School, Ding attended Japan’s most prestigious art school, the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.
Arriving in Japan in 1920, Ding studied at the Kawabata Painting School before enrolling in the Western Painting Department at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in September 1921. Ding’s time at the school coincided with the return of many Japanese artists who had been studying in Europe. These artists brought the Western styles they had learnt to the school and this period saw styles such as Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism becoming popular, along with the academic and Impressionist styles that had already been introduced to Japan.
During his years in Tokyo, Ding studied under Wada Eisaku. Whilst Eisaku’s style was very different to the free and spontaneous style Ding preferred, his academic discipline and his use of colours within his oil paintings were beneficial to Ding’s studies. In 1924, Ding’s Post-Impressionist painting “On the Dining Table” was chosen to be displayed at the Central Art Exhibition of Japan, which was considered an honour by his teachers and fellow students.
Following the completion of his graduation paintings in 1925, Ding returned to China, becoming actively involved in the art scene in Shanghai. He joined the Fine Arts Department of the newly established Lida School whilst also holding teaching positions in the Painting Programme of Shenzhou Schools for Girls and the Western Painting Department of Shanghai University of Fine Arts.
During the Winter of 1925, student unrest saw a split in the University of Shanghai. Ding, Chen Baoyi, and a number of other colleagues, left Shanghai University and set up the Zhonghua University of Fine Arts. Ding served as the University registrar, as well as being a trustee and chairman of the Art Education Department. Alongside Chen Baoyi he ran the Western painting programme promoting modernism in China. This gained them both recognition for infusing the Western-style Painting Movement with a renewed energy. Whilst helping to set up the new University and teaching the students, Ding continued to produce and exhibit his own artworks.
In the Autumn of 1928, Ding left Shanghai and moved to Guangzhou to establish the Guangzhou Municipal Museum. He also obtained a teaching position at Guangzhou Municipal College of Art and Guangdong Sports Academy. Following the museum opening, Ding served as a member of the Management Committee and head of the Fine Arts section. During this year Ding also began collecting the works of Bada Shanren, Shitao and Jin Nong instigating a life-long appreciation of Chinese art and antiquities which inspired the beginnings of his works in oil and ink which crossed the boundaries of Western and Chinese art.
Returning to Shanghai in 1932, Ding taught at the Xinhua College of Art as well as other local art schools. Ding visited Guangzhou many times during this period before finally leaving Shanghai in 1940. Following a short period in Guangzhou, Ding moved to Chongqing and joined the National College of Art. Returning to Guangzhou in 1946, Ding took on the Directorship at The Guangdong Provincial College of Art. During a 3-year tenure, Ding introduced a number of changes. The length of study was extended from two to five years, a number of famous modern artists joined the faculty and a permanent campus was created at Guangxiao Temple. His most important contribution, however, was to transform the college from one which simply provided technical training in art to a school which actively nurtured creative talents.
In 1949 Ding moved to Hong Kong, bringing with him just a few of his favourite paintings by Bada Shanren and Shitao and about a hundred jade and bronze seals of the Qin and Han dynasties. The remainder of his estate was returned to Moaming County with his family. Ding suffered extreme financial hardship in Hong Kong and could only afford to rent a small room in the nunnery at Castle Peak. Having left for Hong Kong before his final child was born, Ding never actually met the child.
Between 1951 and 1956, Ding held part-time teaching positions in a number of schools and colleges in Hong Kong. Following an invitation from Qian Mu, he set up a Fine Arts Programme at New Asia College. The Fine Arts Department provided the base for him to continue teaching and producing his own creative works, which from 1960 included the carving of seals. The College became part of The Chinese University in 1963 and Ding taught there until his death in 1978.