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.