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Outrageous Artist Liu Haisu - A Century of Resplendent Chinese Modern Art

 Odile Chen / Ravenel Quarterly No. 17 2016/05 / 2016-05-16
 

 

Liu Haisu, a remarkable modern artist and educator who stood out as paragons of Chinese art from the 20th century. He travelled down the path of traditions yet was also bold and daring. He chose to employ extravagant gold-coated paper with an elegance and sense of delicate refinery that was free of brazen splendor; he incorporated the tones and shadows of Western paintings to express the majestic, opulent dimensions of Chinese mountain and water painting.


On March 16, 2016, the 120th anniversary of Chinese modern artist Liu Haisu’s birthday, China Post announced the release of three stamps featuring three of Liu’s artworks, attracting throngs of enthusiastic philatelists who queued up to make the latest acquisition for their collections. At the same time, the newly completed venue of Shanghai’s “Liu Haisu Art Museum” began its trial operations in conjunction with an art seminar. It also announced that in June, major exhibition “Re-writing Liu Haisu” will be officially launched to commemorate the innovative spirit of this extraordinary artist and educator.


 


 

The predecessor of Shanghai’s “Liu Haisu Art Museum” was founded on March 16, 1995, on the centenary of the artist’s birthday. The museum was the first national-level art museum in China to be named after an individual. It was a multi-function art museum that integrated artwork collection and preservation, academic research, exhibitions and displays, educational promotion, and cultural exchange. Housed within the museum’s collections were over 300 pieces of artworks including works by luminaries such as Shitao and Juran dating from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The museum collection also included 360 original pieces as well as over 200 paintings and works of calligraphy, all of which were donated, gratis, to the State. The Liu Haisu Art Museum in Liu’s homeland Changzhou was the recipient of donations in the form of 30 authentic artworks, while another 20 pieces were donated to Nanjing University of the Arts. Today, after a period of over two decades, the Liu Haisu Art Museum in Shanghai has been relocated to its new address on Yan’an West Road in Changning District. There are currently 2000 items in the museum’s collection, of which at least 700 pieces are works by Master Liu. The design concept of the museum’s new building was inspired by “Cloud Sea Rock Mountain,” Liu’s portrayal of the majestic Yellow Mountain. Boldly delineated and exquisitely molded, the structure is reminiscent of colossal rocks standing proud in a sea of clouds when viewed from a distance. It is therefore no surprise that this imposing new building has been lauded as the most exceptionally designed art museum of the entire Puxi area.

 

The Art Traitor’s Enmity of a Lifetime

Liu Haisu was born in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province in 1896. Even as a child, he expressed an avid interest in art. He went to further his studies in Shanghai when he was 14 and joined the “Landscape Painting Seminary” founded by Zhou Xiang. The school specialized in the new French theater stage background painting methods and construction methods for stage sets, which were all conducted in Western artistic styles. He returned home after a year. In 1912, Liu and his friend Wu Shiguang co-founded the first school of arts in China, the “Shanghai Academy of Art” (renamed Shanghai Academy of Chinese Painting in 1915). Liu also assumed the role as deputy headmaster and later, headmaster. “Great heroes start young,” the year the school was founded he was only 17, perfectly exemplifying his extraordinarily boldness and insight.

 

Liu Haisu (1896-1994), Xu Beihong (1895-1957), and Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) were three remarkable modern artists and educators who stand out as paragons of Chinese art from the 20th century. They had all studied in Europe and later returned to China, bringing back the newest trends and concepts from the West and dedicating themselves to reformations in Chinese painting. Their influences and contributions were significant. Each of them has earned widespread critical acclaim or triggered heated discussions in the art world, the most well-known story among which is the intense controversy between Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu. The two were similar in age and both hailed from Jiangsu. Separately, they each led an exciting life yet continued to vie and compete against each other in conflicts and enmities that lasted throughout their lifetimes. Their fiery disputes and arguments became the subject of discussion in written works and peculiar incidents in modern art that have been passed down to later generations. Even after the death of Xu Beihong, the gossip continued to circulate for several decades. Their near-century long enmity and conflict was even turned into a book titled “Enmity of a Lifetime”.

 

In the early days, Xu was accepted into the art school Liu founded in Shanghai, but he did not remain enrolled for long. In 1932, a newspaper article which referred to the two of them as “Master Liu Haisu and his student Xu Beihong” antagonized the proud and haughty Xu who was the elder by one year. He turned around and showed his derision by claiming that the Shanghai Art School was a “degree mill” and that he considered himself to be way above its caliber. Liu Haisu, who had a forceful arrogant personality, could not contain his anger and rebutted ferociously. From this point on these two great masters were in continuous contention, regarding which their close mutual friends at the time, Liang Zongdai and Cai Yuanpei, persistently attempted to resolve these misunderstandings so the two could come together and contribute to art education. But even after Xu Beihong passed away from illness, this wish never came to fruition. The conflict and enmity between the two artists lived on and it was only in 1994, when Liu reached his centenary that discussions were finally laid to rest.


 


 

Forward-Thinking and Courageous: Pioneer of Modern Art

Liu founded the Shanghai Academy of Chinese Painting in his early years to help the country cultivate new artistic talent. He advocated freedom of thought, eclecticism, emphasis on a natural approach in teaching, respect for the individuality of students, and promoted the diversification of artistic styles. He also introduced Western education methods and achieved significant outcomes in Western painting instruction, through which he himself also attained growth and development. Although the Academy was a private school, he still appointed Cai Yuanpei, Liang Qichao, Wang Zhen, Shen Enfu, and Huang Yanpei to the school’s board of directors and established courses including Chinese Painting, Western Painting, Industrial Design, Sculpting, Higher Teacher Education, and Primary Teacher Education. In 1921, the Academy was renamed Shanghai School of Fine Arts, although the school is generally referred to as the abbreviated Shanghai Art School. Prominent modern artist of the 20th century, such as Zhu Qizhan, Wang Jiyuan, Li Keran, Huang Zhen, Cai Ruohong, Chang Shuhong, Mo Pu, Xu Xingzhi, Pan Yuliang, Shen Zhiyu, Han Shangyi, and Cheng Shifa all studied at the Shanghai Art School and later became the outstanding artists within their respective creative dimensions. Li Chung-Shan, the founding father of abstract art in Taiwan, also studied at the school’s graduate institution in his early adulthood. “It takes a decade for trees to grow but a century for people to become sophisticated and cultivated,” the school has achieved much since its founding and has never been the worthless “degree mill” which master Xu Beihong had accused it of being in his words of anger.

 

As founder and headmaster of the Shanghai Art School, Liu Haisu is attributed with many “first instances” in the history of modern art education, some of which are memorable and exceptional even today. For example, he was the pioneer of “human models” in 1915 which caused immense scandal in the conservative society of the past. He was denounced as an “art traitor” and antagonized the warlord Sun Chuanfang who issued a warrant for Liu’s arrest. It was only due to the support and efforts of Cai Yuanpei that the case was delayed and finally closed after over a decade. In 1918, when he took his students to Hangzhou’s Xihu (West Lake) to sketch, he subverted traditional methodologies of teaching stipulating that painting should be done indoors by “advocating travel painting in nature”. In 1918, he founded the first specialized fine art magazine in China called “Fine Arts” where he wrote articles to introduce Impressionist artists such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. In 1919, in response to Cai Yuanpei’s urgings, he began to accept female students at his school, and was also the first to pioneer co-ed education in China. Renowned female artist Pan Yuliang applied for and was accepted into the art school due to this innovative measure.

 

As can be discovered from all of the above, art critics believe that Liu Haisu’s revolutionary innovations have far surpassed the boundaries of art history. His fearless determination and persistence exhibited in the face of traditional authorities stand as a representation of the aspects of Chinese society that were beginning to depart from tradition and enter into modern struggles.


 

Overseas Travels and Studies: Works Collected by the Japanese and French Governments

Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), President of Peking University and the Minister of Education of China, played a critical role in the life of Liu Haisu by offering him continued support and encouragement. Even the lyrics to the school anthem of Shanghai Art School had been personally penned by Cai. In an introduction Cai wrote about Liu, he stated that, “Liu Haisu’s art has qualities of the Post-Impressionism style. His paintings come from direct observations of nature, they are faithful replications of his feelings and emotions for nature. This is why in his works you can see in each line and structural component the passion he has for nature. He is a strong-willed individual, a characteristic that can be seen everywhere in his artworks…” In the early 1920s, Cai invited Liu to Peking University to hold lectures on modern art trends and also appointed him to draft the curriculum for the nation’s junior high art classes. In 1927, Liu visited Japan and met renowned artists Ishii Hakutei, Hashimoto Kansetsu, and Komuro Suiun. During his visit, Emperor Hirohito purchased his painting “Taishan Flying Waterfall” as a keepsake, from this it can be seen that Liu was much beloved and appreciated in the art world.

 

In 1928, Liu Haisu’s proposal at the national education conference to hold a “national art exhibition” was passed and he was appointed as a preparatory committee member. In the same year, with funding provided by Cai Yuanpei, he went to Paris for study and travel. He relocated to Europe for around three years, a time during which he visited numerous museums and art galleries to copy the renowned paintings of Delacroix, Rembrandt, Cézanne, and van Gogh. He also had opportunities to meet great masters such as Picasso and Matisse in person. His oil paintings “Front Door”, “Sunflower”, and “Respite” were twice selected to be exhibited at Paris’ Salon d’Automne, while another artwork titled “Snow of Luxembourg” was purchased by the French government. For a Chinese artist to have a Western style painting displayed in a French art gallery, this was not merely a personal achievement but an honor to his homeland. French scholar Louis Laroy thus wrote in the preface of the European Exhibition Tour, “gazing upon the snowy scene which he distilled from the piercing North Wind and frozen mists of Luxembourg, the entwined branches embody a silent lyricism so articulately expressed by its powerful rhythms,” and additionally commended Liu as the “Master of the Chinese Renaissance”.

 

After Liu returned to China, he compiled and published a book series on the works of famous modern European artists called “Anthology of Famous Paintings”. These artworks included renowned pieces by Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne, and van Gogh and in the last volume he included works of his own. It comes as no surprise that such confidence was seen as an affront by certain members of his contemporaries, especially those who had also studied in Europe, such as Xu Beihong.

 

In 1934, under the funding support of the Nationalist government, Liu travelled to major European cities to organize the “Chinese Modern Art Exhibition Tour” which was held for a year before his return home. He received much affirmation and praise for this feat, at the same time of which he also published books on art theories and art history. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, Liu Haisu led his teachers and students in the organization of aid relief exhibitions to help refugees. He also personally went on an exhibition tour to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia to raise funds for war relief efforts. During the war he took refuge in Jakarta and created a series of oil paintings depicting his time in the Asia-Pacifics. After the war ended, he held a solo exhibition at Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall. All these experiences testify to an eventful and exciting life filled with glory and pride.


 


 

Ten Ascents of Yellow Mountain: Full Expressions of Yellow Mountain Serve as a Model of Art

An overview of Liu Haisu’s artworks will show no factual evidence that he was an “art traitor;” instead, he continued to employ traditional methods passed on from his predecessors and supplemented these methods with his own revolutionary innovations . His unconventional originality stole the show in the art world during a period of extreme conservative thought. Little wonder then that people were envious of his achievements. He was wanted for arrest in his youth by a warlord, hunted by the Japanese army during the war, branded as a rightist during the Cultural Revolution, raided dozens of times, suffered a stroke twice to the extent that he had to give up painting and even lost the power of speech. These harsh circumstances have only contributed to his strength of character and enhanced his artistic skills. He suffered great indignities and insults and was often forced to suppress the eloquent temper of his youth. He once said, “To be silent and forsake all others allows one to gain a decade’s worth of hard earned skills.” In his later years he climbed Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) on multiple occasions, and never lost his passion for art. In particular, his calligraphy paintings showed a significant breakthrough, resulting in artworks that were most generally acclaimed. The paintings of Huangshan created in his later years also became the most iconic works of his career.

 

Liu Haisu was intrepid and uninhibited, and he was deeply influenced by Western Post-Impressionist artists such as Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin. Out of all traditional Chinese artists, he particularly favored the refreshing and unrestricted style of Shitao (1642-1707), a master from the Qing Dynasty. Once, Liu Haisu and a good friend Chen Zhizeng went to visit Beijing’s Wangfujing, Liulichang, and Rongbaozhai. On the trip he bought the painting “Huangshan” by Shitao. This was the beginning of his personal formal collection, it was also at this crucial point that his fate became inseparably intertwined with the majectic peaks of Huangshan.

 

Throughout his life, Liu remained deeply fascinated by and enamored of Huangshan. Apart from early oil paintings, many of his most important works were mostly also inspired by Huangshan. If Mont Sainte-Victoire was Paul Cézanne’s holy mountain, then Huangshan was the holy mountain that Liu Haisu sought to depict through his art. From his first ascent of Huangshan in 1918 to his tenth in 1988, the time period spans seventy years, which includes almost all of Liu’s artistic activities. His works featuring Huangshan as the main theme include sketches, drawings, oil paintings, and traditional Chinese paintings, all outstanding creations with their individual traits of magnificence.

 

He once quoted Shitao’s famous saying, “Huangshan is my teacher, I am Huangshan’s friend” to explain how the emulation of nature may result in beauty that surpasses even natural scenery itself. Liu Haisu painted Huangshan repeatedly in effort to create the Huangshan of his mind. He said, “In the past Huangshan was my teacher, today I am Huangshan’s friend”, a portrayal of his artistic thought and his fervent desire to adequately express the grandeur of Huangshan. In later years he used sprayed ink and sprayed paint to delineate Huangshan while Western painting techniques complemented Chinese techniques in the enrichment of his paintings. This unique style added to the vibrancy and diversity of his artistic style. Ikuo Hirayama, president of Tokyo University of the Arts in the 1980s greatly admired Liu’s Chinese paintings. He pointed out, “In his sprayed paint depictions of mountains and waters, he daringly used azurite and cinnabar to create a heretofore unknown universe in the world of Chinese painting.”


 

 

Reappearance of Giant Huangshan Painting on the Market: Anticipating the Liu Haisu Phenomenon for the 120 Anniversary

At a seminar held to commemorate Liu Haisu’s 110 anniversary in 2006, an expert used one word to describe the distinct features of the works of famous 20th century artists. The descriptions were quite apt. For Wu Changshuo it was “bleak”, for Qi Baishi it was “fun”, Huang Binhong’s was “rounded”, Xu Beihong was “grand”, Li Keran was “impenetrable”, Fu Baoshi was “elegant”, Lin Fengmian was “graceful”, Pan Tianshou was “domineering”, while Liu Haisu was “wild”. This portrayal is quite interesting because Liu Haisu’s term of “wild” does neither refers to arrogance nor to madness. It is rather a description of “freedom from restraint,” an impassioned outpouring, a release of inner strength, all of which he embodied as a Romantic artist of Expressionist thought.

 

Character creates destiny. Liu, who has treasured the idea of freedom and his defiance against restraint since a very early age by running away from an arranged marriage and from school, all for the pursuit of individuality and the fulfillment of the self. 1930s Poet and good friend Liang Zongdai described him as an “artist who has entered the depths.” He wrote, “Strength, it goes without saying, is the symbol of your works, your works are the representations of your strength. Whether it’s expert or layman, once they see your art they are swept into the powerful whirlwind of strength.” His good friend and prominent writer Xu Zhimo also lauded Liu as “an artist with mystic ways of thinking.” Xu once wrote, “You may dislike his (Liu Haisu) works, you may criticize his creations from all angles, but you simply cannot ignore the unique status he holds amongst all modern artists. He is right there and he grabs your attention. Especially in this time when talent is hard to come by, we cannot help but place our hope born from despair on this extraordinarily gifted artist.”

 

Liu Haisu was indeed an unusual character in the realm Chinese modern art world, he travelled down the path of traditions yet was also bold and daring. His background was in Western painting, but he was also passionate for traditional Chinese styles and techniques. He painted Huangshan, which has always been beloved by the ancients; he chose to employ extravagant gold-coated paper with an elegance and sense of delicate refinery that was free of brazen splendor; he incorporated the tones and shadows of Western paintings to express the majestic, opulent dimensions of Chinese mountain and water painting. At the Ravenel Hong Kong Spring 2016 Auction, we collected two rare paintings of Huangshan by Liu that had previously been part of a vintage collection owned by Mr. Zhou Yunjian, an Overseas Chinese residing in Brazil. One is the giant painting “Yellow Mountain – Sea of Clouds” while the other is an opulent landscape painting “Golden Landscape – Yellow Mountain”. “Yellow Mountain – Sea of Clouds” features a total length of 366 cm and depicts the magnificence of the panoramic horizons of Huangshan’s skies and flowing water immersed in under golden autumn sunlight. The white plumes of smoke, the crimson of the autumn leaves, the cold blue of the rushing waters, the rich contrasts of the sprayed paint and ink mountain water painting are all absolutely breathtaking.

 

“Golden Landscape – Yellow Mountain” is entirely in the unique style of Liu, and is even rarer than usual as the work was created on gold-coated paper. The imposing aura of Huangshan is augmented by this golden splendor, imbuing the painting with the mysteries of the Orient. Inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Liu’s masterpiece “The Magnificence of Yellow Mountain” (now in the collection of Diaoyutai State Guesthouse) once hung in public view. The size of the painting is 119 cm by 493 cm and is slightly larger than the “Yellow Mountain – Sea of Clouds” included in this auction. But the imagery and structure of this painting is almost exactly the same as the “Golden Landscape – Yellow Mountain” of 1983. This fine work was created after Liu’s ninth ascent onto Huangshan. For collectors of Liu Haisu’s works, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to add the rare masterpiece “The Magnificence of Yellow Mountain” on gold-coated paper to your collection.


 


 

Easily Recognizable Unique Style: Potential Room for Market Growth

Looking back at past markets for Liu Haisu’s artworks, due to aesthetic preferences and geopolitical circumstances, his paintings have been especially popular in the south. His style is more Western and he was most active in Shanghai, so most of the record high prices were created in the art markets of the south. In his early years, he sought refuge from the war in the Asia-Pacifics and left behind several fine pieces. During the Cultural Revolution, renowned Singapore artist Liu Kang, who was one of Liu Haisu’s favortie students, led an art delegation from Singapore to visit Liu Haisu. He was once received by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Their respect for him can clearly be seen from these interactions. During his second visit to Singapore in 1987, a sprayed ink painting of Huangshan was sold to United Overseas Bank for SGD 100,000.

 

The numerous Liu Haisu exhibitions that have in the past been held in Taiwan always cause quite a stir among appreciative enthusiasts. In 1990, he held an exhibition at the National Museum of History, and has also visited Taiwan to see former Shanghai Art School students. It has been suggested that a personal art museum should be established in his honor in Taiwan, based on the Chang Dai-Chien model, but in the end, he chose to keep his artworks and collection in Shanghai, a city with which he holds stronger ties. A number of collectors in Taiwan are keen to acquire the works of Liu Haisu, while many of his past auctioned pieces have been commissioned by Taiwanese collectors. In his later years, Liu Haisu frequently visited the US and Hong Kong, which is why some of Liu’s works can also be found in Hong Kong. According to article “Special Feature on Liu Haisu” from the first issue of the Han Mo Xuan journal of 1990, the piece “Yellow Mountain Nine Dragon Waterfall” of 1987 was sold for HK$310,000 in auction. Before the 1990s, most of Liu Haisu’s works sold for around HK$100,000 at Hong Kong auctions.

 

Currently, the most expensive work of Liu Haisu on the auction market is “Landscape”, a 366 cm painting of massive scale. The original estimated price was between RMB 5 million to 8 million; in the end it was sold for the astounding figure of RMB 38.525 million(US$5.78 million) at Duoyunxuan of Shanghai’s 2011 auction. In second place is the 365 cm colored ink painting “Yellow Mountain,” which sold for RMB 20.16 million(US$3.024 million) at Beijing’s Dongfangqiushi auction in 2012. The most expensive oil painting was “Shanghai Temple Fair” of 1962 which sold for RMB 13.225 million(US$1.984 million) at the Xiling Imprinting Corporation of Hangzhou’s auction in 2014.

 

The artworks of Liu Haisu span across the calligraphy painting and oil painting markets, which also goes for Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, and Wu Guanzhong. But the prices for Liu’s works are still attainable, while issues with counterfeits are also not as severe as with other artists. All of this means that for collectors, the works are still relatively accessible. It has been reported that Liu did not create more than 4,000 pieces of artworks during his lifetime; for an artist who lived to almost a hundred, he was not extremely prolific. As his personal art museum and the Nanjing University of the Arts hold at least 700 pieces in their collections, very few of Liu’s artworks are still available on the market. With an artistic status equivalent to that of national-level art museums, Liu Haisu’s artistic styles are continuously being researched and studied. In the future there is also the possibility that a complete collection with better research outcomes and analyses would be published on the life, artistic styles, appraisals and critiques of this great master. This should also prove to be useful news to collectors.






 
 


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