Painter Liu Haisu set out to make Chinese art innovative
The magnificent views surrounding Huangshan Mountain have been admired by Chinese poets, painters and calligraphers over the centuries. The scenic mountain range in East China’s Anhui province, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was also a favorite of Liu Haisu (1896-1994). The prominent artist traveled there to paint on several occasions over the course of 70 years.
After his sixth trip in 1954, Liu composed a line that read: “Huangshan Mountain was previously a teacher of mine. Now it is a friend of mine.”
And he carved the words on a seal, in remembrance of what the mountain taught him about the true character of nature and art.
During his life, Liu produced dozens of landscape paintings of Huangshan Mountain, both in ink-brush and oil, and 28 of them are the center of an ongoing exhibition, A Drop in the Ocean, being held in Beijing.
The show at the National Art Museum of China marks Liu’s innovation during a period of great modernization in Chinese art. On display are more than 100 works that have seldom been seen in public, let alone together.
Liu had his first encounter with Huangshan Mountain in 1918, in the hope that the breathtaking natural scenery could inspire him to find a new direction for Chinese art.
He later recalled the trip: “The paths up to the mountain top were really difficult. Sometimes I had to crawl on my hands and knees. But the views were so attractive: the pine trees, the rocks and the mist. The mountain taught me a lesson about beauty.”
And the paintings at this exhibition reflect the change in Liu’s approach to nature and his attitude toward life. The works created before he turned 60 were more realistic, while after that, he embraced a more abstract style to depict the everchanging scenery of Huangshan. He heavily relied on the method of pocai, or splashing colors on paper. The technique also reveals the broad, philosophical outlook on life that he held.
Liu was 93 when he made his last trip to Huangshan. He produced 46 paintings during his final stay, which lasted nearly two months.
Ding Tao, a professor at the Nanjing University of Arts, accompanied him. He recalls one day when Liu was working on an ink-brush painting,
Lion Peak, which is part of the current exhibition: “He splashed ink on the paper so hard that we thought the painting would be ruined. But he looked quite confident.
“After he stopped pouring, he added a few strokes here and there. It turned out to be a splendid piece of artwork.”
Liu demonstrated the same innovative spirit in his educational practice.
Four months before he turned 17, Liu co-founded the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, the first proper art school in modern China, together with two other painters, Wu Shiguang and Zhang Yuguang.
The private institution operated for four decades after first opening its doors in 1912. The academy cultivated many noted artists such as ink-brush master Li Keran; Zhao Dan, who later became a popular movie actor; and Wan Laiming, a pioneer of the Chinese animation industry.
The academy relocated to Nanjing in 1952. It was renamed the Nanjing University of Arts when it became a public institution, where Liu continued to serve as its principal.
However, the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts was not Liu’s first experience of education. In 1910, he opened a studio to teach oil painting in his native county of Changzhou, in East China’s Jiangsu province.
In Shanghai, Liu garnered attention for being a liberal educator, who tried to free his students from the shackles of feudal teaching methods.
His school was the first to enroll both men and women. It received its first female students in 1919, including Pan Yuliang (1895-1977), a former sex worker who later became a renowned painter.
Ding recalls how Liu explained why he adopted the coeducation system despite opposition: “He said, ‘Are there separate roads for men and women? No. Then why should we have schools for boys and girls?’”
Another controversy Liu sparked was to introduce nude models — men in 1915, and women in 1920 — into sketching classes, making his academy the first to do so in China.
The school held an exhibition of students’ paintings in 1917, which included nude drawings. One visiting principal was angered by the classes, and denounced Liu as a “traitor to art” and “a virus within educational circles”.
The debate over the use of nude models escalated to such an extent by the late 1920s, Liu was forced to leave the academy.
He then made several long trips to Europe, where he was exposed to contemporary modern artistic movements. He also painted, and his oil works were twice shown at the Autumn Salon in Paris, the influential art exhibition that has been held annually since 1903.
Liu returned to Shanghai in 1931 and was restored to his post at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts.
Liu’s friend Fu Lei (190866), a famous translator and art critic, wrote in a published article in 1932 that Liu had “two bosom friends who had been supporting and encouraging him: self-assurance and flexibility”.
“Because of his strong sense of confidence, he never doubted himself or hesitated, even when he was in a dire situation,” Fu wrote. “And his flexibility allowed him to become even more tenacious, when he confronted with mounting external pressures.”
He added that Liu was accumulating his ability and would one day shock the world with his powers, “as glaring as that of an erupting volcano”.
Liu Haisu had two bosom friends who had been supporting and encouraging him: self-assurance and flexibility.” Fu Lei, translator and art critic
Clockwise from top left: An oil painting of flowers by Liu Haisu in 1960; Guangming Peak of Huangshan Mountain, 1982; visitors at the ongoing exhibition in Beijing; and Sea of Clouds of Huangshan Mountain, 1954.