Mod­ern mas­ter

Painter Liu Haisu set out to make Chi­nese art in­no­va­tive

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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.

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