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Eastern Painter Hsiao Chin: Extending Life’s Boundless Energy



 

Already before 2013, Hsiao Chin’s work would occasionally appear at international auctions. Be it early or recent paintings, small or large ones, all his output tends towards philosophical contemplation and Zen-like abstraction, a fact that was reflected in the prices his works fetched. Performing solidly in the midrange, they would on average sell for about NT$1.5 million (US$50,000) or less. Even so, he was quite popular with collectors, with a high number of his lots finding a buyer. Around 2014 spring season, demand for his works suddenly skyrocketed, with collectors and art dealers jumping on the latest bandwagon. Even on small auctions in Europe and North America, many Asian bidders began to appear, and this unprecedented rush pushed prices first into the NT$2 million range, then into 3 and 4 million territory, until finally breaking the NT$5 million mark, making Hsiao Chin one of the sought-after artists on the Hong Kong and Taiwan markets.

 

The two Chinese-born abstract painters Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-chun have long since achieved international standing, with their highest selling works trading at auction for more than a million, or even more than 10 million US dollars. Meanwhile, the Fifth Moon Group cofounder Liu Kuo-sung’s painting “Scenery of Hong Kong” on November 2014 sold for as much as NT$67.86 million (approx. HK$16.84 million or US$2.18 million), setting a new record for a work by this artist. It is not surprising, then, that Hsiao Chin should also profit from this latest surge in popularity of abstract art—after all, he belongs to the same generation of Chinese painters, and is also one of the great promoters of the Ton Fan Group. His oeuvre’s value in the auction market leaves a lot to be desired.


 


Building an International Reputation

The National Award for Arts, awarded by Taiwan’s government for outstanding contributions to the creative arts, is often considered to be a lifetime achievement award for important artists. Liu Kuo-sung was given this award in the category “fine arts,” in 2009, seven years after Hsiao Chin in 2002. There were five reasons for handing the award to Hsiao: “1. Has been a dedicated painter for more than 40 years, committed to taking Eastern thought and philosophy and sublimating them into an artistic style of contemporary meaning. 2. Co-founded the Ton Fan Group, which made substantial contributions to the early development of modern painting in Taiwan. 3. Imported international artistic trends and exhibitions to Taiwan, helping to link the nation up with the global art scene, and serving as a pioneer of international exchange. 4. Returned to Taiwan in 1996 to teach a young generation of future artists. 5. Has steadily built an international reputation.”

 

Today, Hsiao is in his eighties, looking back on more than six decades as an artist. He was born in Shanghai in 1935 to Hsiao You-mei, one of the pioneers of modern music in China. His father enjoyed a high reputation in China as the founder of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. However, Hsiao Chin lost both of his parents at a young age, and moved to Taiwan with an uncle in 1949. He first went to Taichung Second Senior High School, but later switched to Taipei Chenggong High School. While studying art at the National Taiwan Normal University in 1952, he entered the studio of Li Chun-shan. After that, Hsiao become a prominent member of Taiwan’s modern art movement, as well as one of the co-founders and most active participants of the Ton Fan Group, which was the first Chinese art group dedicated entirely to abstract paint ing. Other members included Hsia Yan, Wu Hao, Li Yuan-chia, Tommy Chen, Hsiao Minghsien, Ouyang Wenyuan, and Ho Kan, all of whom were devoted to exploring the possibilities of abstract painting with Eastern qualities. Along with the Fifth Moon Group, founded by Liu Kuo-sung, the two groups formed an era-defining movement at the vanguard of abstract art in Taiwan.


 


 

At the age of 21, Hsiao Chin received a scholarship from the Spanish government and headed to Europe to study art. He participated in an exhibition of nonfigurative art, one of the most avant-garde art movement at the time, before going to Italy and then Paris, New York, London, and other places to work and broaden his horizons. In the 1950s, he also wrote a regular column for the United Daily News in Taiwan, sending articles about contemporary Western art from abroad under the heading “News from Europe.” These offered valuable insights for local art circles. In 1961, Hsiao, together with Italian painter A. Calderara, initiated the Punto (It. “dot, point”) movement and held exhibitions in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Taipei, with many artists from Spain, France, and the Netherlands participating. In 1985, he started teaching as a fully tenured professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. It was only in 1996, after many years of living abroad, that he returned to Taiwan, where he kept teaching art until his retirement in 2005. Today, he lives in Taiwan with his wife.

 

“If no one had promoted modern art in Taiwan in 1955, we would have fallen far behind internationally. That’s why my friends and I set up the Ton Fan Group.” These were the words Hsiao Chin used on one public occasion, overcome with nostalgia as he reminisced about the past. Taiwan in the 1950s had only just gone through the 228 Incident and was a place under martial law, where censorship and ideological constraints made it difficult for this group of brave young artists to pursue artistic freedom and creativity. Still, they persevered in proposing new ideas, pushing for the transformation and modernization of the arts, and introducing Western abstract art to the island. In 1978, Hsiao submitted a proposal to then President Chiang Ching-kuo, calling for the construction of art museums, which was later adopted. Having returned to Taiwan after decades abroad, Hsiao in 2010 donated a total of 58 of his best works from various periods of his creative career to the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts. This selfless contribution to art, research, and cultural development was recognized with the government’s “Cultural Fragrance Award”.


 


A Successful Example of Globalizing the Chinese Tradition

Hsiao Chin spent half his life abroad. Especial ly dur ing the years that marked the height of his creative powers, he enjoyed the acquaintance and companionship of many well-known contemporary artists, including Franz Kline, Mark Tobey, Mark Rothko, and Wi l lem de Kooning, helping him to broaden his outlook. “Although I have spent much of my life in foreign countries, I have always observed the world, and created all my art, through the lens of Chinese thought and tradition. While I employ Western styles, paints, and media, I hope that observers of my art will notice how everything is permeated with the philosophies of Taoism and Zen, and how my work is an expression of my deep love for the whole world, and in particular my attachment to China as a part of this world,” says Hsiao.

 

Looking back on the artist’s long career, we find that he completed his first abstract painting on paper in 1955, titled “Abstract.” Hsiao felt that his creative career truly began with that painting. Following Li Chun-shan’ s didactic approach, he discarded the idea of slavishly following any one artistic genre or school, and instead began to explore the basic elements of painting. At first glance, the influences of the European painters Miro and Klee appear to be obvious, but many critics find his style to be suffused with his own distinctive structural characteristics, in particular the black calligraphic lines reminiscent of Zhou dynasty stone inscriptions, blurry at the edges where the color is allowed to seep outwards a bit, generating all the tension and sense of movement associated with calligraphic strokes. The overall impression is that “the static state of the image, frozen in time, yet allows for unlimited expression.” This is one of the trademarks of Hsiao’s style. 

 

From 1961 onwards, Hsiao Chin eliminated all background from his work, employing the liubai approach familiar from traditional Chinese painting. At the same time, he discontinued the use of oil paints, opting for ink and watercolors instead. It is worth not ing that hi s technique of discarding background details, and thus getting rid of perspective space, is in some ways different from the classical liubai approach, where “empty space” usually represented air, water, and other elements that serve to link up the various spatial levels of a composition. Hsiao attempts to transcend all configurative limitations and show the underlying pulsations of vital energy. Chinese calligraphy is actually the perfect medium for this purpose, coaxing three dimensional momentum out of lines on flat paper, with rapid brushstrokes forever suspended in time, the fourth dimension. It was this kind of “infinity” that Hsiao became enamored with during the 60s.


 


 

In Milan, Hsiao launched the Punto movement, while also coming into contact with Buddhist mandala art, which would influence his style over the coming decades. From 1962 to 1966, one of his favorite motifs were suns as symbols of the universal life force, with beams of light radiating outwards from the star at the composition’s center; the watercolors were deliberately applied to give a two-dimensional visual effect and texture. After moving to the United States in 1967, Hsiao’s palette became more vivid and flamboyant, partly in response to the then mainstream movements of pop art, Op art, and Hard-edge painting. From that time onwards, the artist gradually eliminated the emotional or “moody” elements from his art, striving to attain a state of satori-like calm in which opposites coexist peacefully while yet generating artistic tension and beauty. This period lasted until about 1974, with Hsiao continuing to employ Western styles and techniques to create images of simple design that are brimming with Eastern intuition and a strong anti-rationalistic undertow.

 

After leaving the United States during the 1970s, Hsiao returned to a simpler style prominently featuring black ink and white paper or calico, and some have dubbed his output from that phase “Zen painting.” Hsiao usually inscribed his paintings, but these inscriptions are rarely straightforward titles or explanations of the work at hand, just as his paintings are abstract, non-representational impressions that derive their impact and momentum from sheer physical force, conjuring up unconventional, fantastic, and sometimes even surrealistic imagery. From the late 1970s onwards, the artist began to often use seals to sign his work, which further enhanced the Oriental air of his paintings. Some of the more frequently used seal signatures include “Hsiao Chin,” “Hsiao Youlan,” “Hsiao Chin Hua Ji,” “Xiaoyao Wang Yuxi,” “Wu Zhong Ju,” and “Zhongshan Hsiao Chin.”

 

From late 1977 to early 1978, Hsiao Chin and some of his friends from the spheres of art and philosophy founded the Surya movement in Milan. “Surya” is Sanskrit for “sun.” To Hsiao, the sun as the source of all creatures’ life and energy was in one way simply an “extension” of the “punto” concept, just raised to a much higher power, or plane of existence—a concept that also readily merged with the roundness and radiating energy found in mandala art.


 


Depicting the Force of Life: Chi, Vortice Cosmico, and Passage through the Great Threshold Series

In the 1980s, Hsiao entered his mature period. The “Chi” series avoided a direct approach of its theme, but rather offered circumlocutory depictions of realities imbued with the underlying subject. “I do not paint ‘Zen,’ but observe the flow and evolution of cosmic life through the lens of Zen.” Visual lines serve to channel spiritual development. Several series from the mid-1980s, including “Magnetic Waves,” “Shower,” and “Vortice Cosmico,” are the work of a painter tempered by life, an artist who has found his very own creative language and expressive form.

 

The “Passage through the Great Threshold” (1991) and “Beyond the Great Threshold” (1993) series derived their inspiration from a most sad and private event, the death at a young age of his most beloved only daughter Samantha in 1990. The monumental grief and pain almost conquered the artist, leaving him in a dark valley of suffering and despair. It took Hsiao some time to reemerge at the other end of the tunnel of shadow and gloom, and be reborn with a deeper understanding of life as an eternal force. Realizing that compassion transcends life and death, the artist found fresh impetus and focus in brighter, more poetic colors and lyrical brushstrokes, allowing him to create visual vistas overflowing with sensitivity and feeling. His newfound creative drive found an outlet in the series titled “The Eternal Garden,” “Towards the Eternal Garden,” and “Birth of a New World,” converting his sense of rebirth into ever-changing colors and lines. The paintings from this period boast a delicate texture and also mark the reappearance of the liubai approach, familiar from the artist’s much earlier work. They are limpid and serene celebrations of eternity.


 


 

The series “Vortex of Light,” “Evolution of the Universe,” and “Big Bang” were completed around the turn of the millennium. They feature allusive motion, undulating lines, and perpetually recurring vortices. The latter are either collapsing in on themselves or spinning outwards in all directions, symbolizing the life force that pulsates through the cosmos and spurs the formation of life, its beauty and its warmth. From 2003-2004 onwards, Hsiao created the “Universal Heart” series with its focus on the infinite “greater self” and “universal love.” Employing the popular heart shape or the infinity symbol (∞), executed in layers of gradated color, he offered his take on the tolerance and understanding that come with love. The simpler the composition, the more intense is the sense of boundless energy emanating from Hsiao’s pictures.

 

Hsiao Chin is a traveler in the realm of modern art, who has left his footprints al l over the world. His ar t revolves around the big themes involving man and his relationship with the world: it is a constant exploration of the tranquility ultimately underlying all motion. A true heir to Li Chun-shan’s artistic legacy, Hsiao was an important pioneer of modern painting in Taiwan, and in terms of his dedicated pursuit of artistic growth and skill, as well as his active participation in the international art scene, he even excelled his master’s achievements. He used Western palettes and techniques to reinvent the manifold possibilities and styles of Chinese painting, and in the process he raised the human spirit to new heights. Therein lies the attraction of his art, and the reason why it resonates with an increasing number of aficionados.


 


Hsiao Chin at 80: His Work Is Found in the Collections of more than 40 Museums and Galleries around the World, and in the Hands of Countless Collectors in Europe and North America

After having lived and worked abroad for the better part of his life, today Hsiao Chin finds his work distributed in locations around the world. A conservative estimate says that more than 40 international museums, galleries, and foundations hold some of his work in their collections, including the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome, the National Gallery in Stuttgart, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Randers City Museum in Denmark, the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts in Lausanne, the National Museum Cardiff, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, The Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Art, the China Art Museum (formerly Shanghai Art Museum), and the Hong Kong Museum of Art. The most extensive collections of his work are currently found in Italy and Taiwan.

 

Hsiao Chin spent much of his time in the U.S. and Italy, where he painted and taught art. In particular, he was teaching as a fully tenured professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan for many years, and in 2005 received the Italian Star of Solidarity, which is awarded by the country’s president. He had a long history of cooperation with his Italian agent, G. Marconi, who represented him for more than 30 years. Other longlasting collaborations included those with M. D’Arquian’s Gallery, the Rose Fried Gallery in New York, the Di Meo Gallery in Paris, Alison Fine Arts in Hong Kong, the Taichung Contemporary Art Company, the Dimensions Art Gallery in Taipei, the Apollo Art Gallery in Taipei, and the Lin & Lin Gallery, also in Taipei.


 


 

Hsiao Chin’s standing in China has been further boosted by the great respect his father, Hsiao You-mei, always received as one of the pioneers of modern music in China, as well as a former secretary of Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China. In 1980, Hsiao Chin was invited to participate in events in Beijing and Shanghai marking the 40th anniversary of his father’s death. He also delivered a lecture on 20th century Western art in the auditorium of China’s Ministry of Culture in Beijing. These events marked the artist’s first return to China since he had left his native country 31 years earlier. In 1986 he was again invited to Beijing to take part in celebrations commemorating the centenary of Sun Yat-sen’s birth, and was received with much honor. In 1994, Hsiao Chin retrospectives were held at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, marking the first official exhibitions of the artist’s work to be held in China. In 2004 and 2006 retrospectives of his work were held at the China Art Museum (formerly Shanghai Art Museum) and the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, respectively. All this means that the art market in China is by no means a stranger to Hsiao Chin’s work.

 

During the 1990s, Hsiao returned to Taiwan to take up a teaching position. Since then, the center of both his private and his creative life has been on the island. In recent years, the auction markets in Taipei and Hong Kong have started to increasingly promote his work, and we are now beginning to see a spike in the interest in Hsiao’s oeuvre as more and more collectors are setting their sights on his paintings. His work is steadily gaining in popularity, and it is a safe bet that lots by this artist will continue to perform very well in Taipei and Hong Kong during the coming year.


 

 

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