2015 No.4
2015 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon V: Lui Shou-kwan and Modern Chinese Art
At the ICS Luncheon on 26 October 2015, Professor Josh Yiu, Acting Director of the Art Museum, presented his recent research on Lui Shou-kwan and modern Chinese art.

Josh Yiu

Acting Director of the Art Museum, Associate Professor (by courtesy) of the Fine Arts Department, CUHK

 

Professor Josh Yiu is the Acting Director of the Art Museum. He received his B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago, and completed his doctorate at Oxford University. From 2006 to 2013, he served as the Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at the Seattle Art Museum. A specialist in late imperial and modern Chinese art, his publications include Writing Modern Chinese Art: Historiographic Explorations (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009) and Uncover the Past: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Seattle Art Museum Collection, an award-winning online catalogue sponsored by the J. Paul Getty Foundation. He has taught and lectured at various universities, including the University of Washington and the Seattle University.

 

 

Professor Yiu first introduced Lui Shou-kwan's life and his painting experience. Born in Guangzhou in 1919, Lui started to paint when he was 22. He received his B.A. in Economics from the Guangzhou University at the age of 24. When he was 28, he moved with his family and settled in Hong Kong, where he worked for the Yaumati Ferry Company until 1966. His first solo exhibition was held in 1954. Two years later, he published one of his important books, Studies of Traditional Chinese Painting 《國畫的研究》. He started to paint a great many Hong Kong scenes at the end of the 1950s. He held a solo exhibition at the Stanford Research Institute in 1960, and continued to hold more exhibitions abroad. He passed away at the young age of 56. Many retrospective exhibitions were held to memorialize Lui and CUHK also held an exhibition of his works in 2013.

 

Professor Yiu noted that Lui had many opportunities to exhibit his paintings abroad when he was alive, which indicated that his works resonated with a broad audience. However, after he passed away, exhibitions of Lui's paintings were mainly held in Hong Kong. Professor Yiu explored the regional recognition of Lui's artistic achievement. He observed that the surveys of modern Chinese art tended to frame the development of modern Chinese art into phases based on major historical events in mainland China, and that the history of Hong Kong and Taiwanese art is introduced in a separate chapter. Such a framework inevitably marginalizes the art in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In History of Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century20世紀中國藝術史》, comments on Hong Kong art and Lui's painting include "the influence blew like a breeze and left at least a few traces here and there in Hong Kong", and "Lui's copy of ancient Chinese painters' works was confusing. When he copied paintings of traditional Chinese themes such as mountains, rivers, flowers, birds, fish and insects, he combined a traditional Chinese realistic style with a freehand style, which does not fit in the traditional training of Chinese painting". According to Professor Yiu, these derogatory comments are ungrounded and they reflect an unease towards a "regional" art that could challenge the main narrative.

 

Professor Yiu argued that Lui was ahead of his contemporaries in innovating Chinese painting. Taking Lui's 1961 painting Ngong Suen Chau (Stonecutters Island) as an example, Professor Yiu pointed out that Lui used a few simple lines to sketch mountains and rivers. His technique marked a breakthrough in traditional Chinese landscape painting. By contrast, it was not until 1980 that the Chinese painter Wu Guanzhong started to try a similar technique in his painting Wuyi Mountain. Lui's breakthrough was rarely acknowledged.

 

Responding to the comment that Lui made "confusing" choices in learning ancient Chinese paintings, Professor Yiu pointed out that Lui's models were strategically chosen to advance novel concepts. Lui once said that "[modern] Ink painting advocates a holistic approach to painting, not to emphasize the landscape of a certain master, or the formulaic nature of other bird-and-flower or figure paintings. In the process of imitating ancient masterpieces, one must consider his/her purpose, what it is that he/she wants to inherit or transmit. Copying a painting is akin to demolishing a wall and then rebuilding it brick by brick". By copying ancient painters' works, Lui learned their techniques in order to create new works. For example, Lui once practised painting the works of Gao Fangshan (also Gao Kegong, a painter of the Yuan Dynasty), from which he mastered Gao's dotting technique in portraying fog. Later, Lui applied this technique on other paintings. He also copied Yufu tu 漁夫圖 by Wu Zhen (one of the four most famous painters of the Yuan Dynasty). In his copy, Lui did not follow Wu's painting completely, but merely adopted the major elements and composition of Wu's painting to create a new painting. Similarly, Lui borrowed the composition and techniques of ancient masters in painting his visions of Hong Kong sceneries, which brings out new effects and styles. By copying and learning from famous traditional painters in China, Lui was able to adopt their structure, technique and design in his own paintings and further develop his own style.

 

Lui knew very well the challenge of breaking through tradition to create an individual style was contingent upon mental determination. He said, "one who feels happy and satisfied after producing a perfect copy from ancient painters is a stupid painter; one who thinks ancient painters have exhausted all possibilities and left no room for change and creation is a slave painter". Further, he believed that "the spirit of art is creation. Creation brings fresh elements. Oftentimes, the most innovative works are influenced, if not derived, from traditional works". Lui pondered on the issues of new and old, copy and creation, tradition and innovation in Chinese painting.

 

Lui's development of abstract landscapes from traditional landscapes has a strong theoretical basis. To Lui, landscape painting is not only "visual" but also "affective".  He built on this foundation to create paintings, however abstract, that could likewise evoke strong emotions. Lui had a similar attitude in painting other subjects, and later created his famous Zen paintings. In his painting practice from the 1950s to the 1970s, Lui developed a style that was very different from the Lingnan School. He believed there were many alternatives to the realistic painting advocated by the Lingnan School, and one should feel free to explore options. In defining freedom of expression, Lui said, "In order to paint freely, one should not be restricted by others, but he must nonetheless set some guidelines for himself. To express freely is not to paint heedlessly therefore only avid readers are in the position to free themselves from being overtaxed by the literal meaning of a text, and only seriously dedicated people deserve a break for occasional lapses". The so-called bold sketches do not come out of nowhere, but are built on a large amount of reading, practising, copying of masterpieces and observing the movements in nature". He concluded that great creation grew out of solid training in traditional painting.

 

Lui accurately predicted the development of Hong Kong art and Chinese art. He wrote in 1972 that "ink painting in Hong Kong will mark an important transition in the history of Chinese art. From the perspective of artistic approach, ink painting in Hong Kong paves the two paths for form-creation and abstraction, which go beyond representations of nature. This is the major reason that ink painting will definitely become a mainstream in Chinese painting in the future". The recent development of painting has affirmed Lui's statement of more than 40 years ago.

 

Modern Chinese artists have been challenged to balance and integrate traditional and modern, Chinese and Western elements. Lui pondered this issue for a long time, and provided resolutions. With solid understanding of both Chinese art and Western art, he was able to see more clearly the essence and uniqueness of Chinese art, which he believed can contribute to the development of global contemporary art. According to Lui, "the 'spirit resonance' of traditional Chinese painting meets the three requirements of global contemporary art: the dissemination of ideas, the expression of feelings, and the bridge for understanding. With a philosophical foundation, traditional Chinese painting emphasizes spirit resonance rather than beauty, because the former is truly the pinnacle of art. It was not until the twentieth century that art experts in the West realised art did not have to be beautiful". According to Professor Yiu, these comments reflect Lui's unique understanding of Chinese and Western art. At the end of his talk, Professor Yiu quoted Lui's comment on ink painting in Hong Kong as a response to the comments made by mainland Chinese art critics about Hong Kong arts: "Ink painting in Hong Kong has become a major and representative force of contemporary Chinese art even though mainland China or Taiwan may not recognize Hong Kong's contribution". Professor Yiu pointed out that further studies of Hong Kong painters such as Lui will reveal a new face of Chinese art in the twentieth century.

 

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor Joseph M. Chan: The History and Development of the Universities Service Centre for China Studies of CUHK
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2015 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon V: Lui Shou-kwan and Modern Chinese Art
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Exhibition: The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Rubbings of Stone Engraving and Model Calligraphy, Art Museum
Exhibition: Restrained Lustre: Chinese Jades from the Cissy and Robert Tang Collection, Art Museum
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Editorial Board Committee
 
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