Liu Kuo-sung, the father of modern Chinese ink painting, seems as young as ever, and is still creating new work at a frenetic pace. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
When the world-renowned painter Liu Kuo-sung sits down for our interview, he immediately asks that I move to his right side so he can better hear me. Our subsequent conversation begins with the subject of the deafness in his left ear.
An ear for the arts
Liu explains that he climbed to the Mt. Everest base camp, more than 5,000 meters above sea level, while lecturing in Tibet in 2000.
“I did as I was told that day, and sat down to enjoy the view. It was incredibly beautiful. Once the clouds blew off, the mountains were revealed. Wow! The sun shone down on the ridge, creating a swath of brilliant white. The scene went through countless permutations in mere moments….” Recalling the view 17 years later, he is transported, and says it was the first time in his life he attained a state of true “selflessness.” More than two hours had passed before he descended again.
Unfortunately, he was deaf in his left ear by the time his flight back from Lhasa landed in Chengdu. He sought treatment on the ear after returning to Taiwan, ceasing work for six months to do so before one day realizing: “God has been good to me. He’s left me one working ear.” From that moment forward, he quit fretting about his ear and went back to painting by beginning work on his “Tibet” series.
Liu has stored away landscapes from all over the world in his memories, and has gone on to internalize these scenes from Mt. Jade, Mt. Everest, Jiuzhaigou, Mont Blanc, and still other locations visited during eight years as a refugee in the Second Sino‡Japanese War, incorporating them into his own being and then transforming them into abstract landscapes in his signature style.
Declaring war on tradition
Liu likes to provoke. It wasn’t long after he gained admission to the fine arts department at National Taiwan Normal University (then known as the Taiwan Provincial College of Education) that he began butting heads with the department’s hidebound and authoritarian system. He soon came to prefer playing basketball to attending what were to him stale and uninteresting lessons.
Recalling his time in the arts department, Liu says, “I was wild and contrary by nature. At one point, I signed up for a calligraphy class, but then dropped it when I heard a Chinese painting teacher say that you had to learn calligraphy before studying Chinese painting.”
His abandonment of the study of calligraphy was a slap in the face to the idea that painting and calligraphy shared the same roots, and a declaration of war on tradition.
In 1956, he and classmates Kuo Tong-jong, Kuo Yu-lun, and Li Fang-chih formed a painting society they called the Fifth Moon Group. Named after Paris’s famed Salon de Mai, the group’s establishment was indicative of the waxing of Taiwan’s modern art movement. But Liu himself was also influenced by Zao Wou-ki’s “Eastern abstractionism,” which led him away from an entirely Western style and toward one that harmoniously blended Chinese and Western elements. Giving up oils for Eastern paper and ink, he began to explore the abstract and innovate in ink. He never looked back.
“Paintings used to be descriptive, but I felt we should leave that sort of thing to literature,” says Liu, explaining his artistic philosophy. “Painting is by its nature an abstraction from the visual. It is only in abstraction that painting is true to its intrinsic self, that it is pure painting.
“Modern painting is abstract. Abstraction has become the only game in town.” It’s not hard to imagine Liu offending many realistic painters over the years with his ideas.
Liu’s wife, Li Mo-hua, describes him as “wild” and “daring.” A graduate of the plant pathology program at National Taiwan University, Li was working for the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute when they met at a bus stop. Liu was instantly smitten, but Li had numerous suitors. What made her pick an artist with no family in Taiwan who spent what little money he had on books? “He was brave and filled with energy, never tentative, unafraid of pressure, and unconcerned with whether he offended people.”
In other words, he had a rogue’s charm.
Liu took a job as a lecturer in the architecture department of Chung Yuan Christian University in 1960, and married Li in the following year. Having a family of his own helped ease the pain he felt from the loss of his father in the Second Sino‡Japanese War and his later separation from his mother.
New understandings and new innovations are often sparked by the collision between unlike things. While at Chung Yuan, Liu happened to attend a forum on modern architecture at which he heard a participant say: “Using one material to emulate the look of another is a kind of sham, a kind of trick.”
The idea hit Liu like a punch in the gut.
In those days, he was using oil paints and plaster to create a traditional Chinese landscape aesthetic, and his career appeared ready to take flight. He had fully developed the technique, represented Taiwan at the Paris Youth Biennale, and even been called a genius by Le Figaro.
But the discussion of “counterfeiting” left him feeling wounded. When he returned home that night, he dug out brushes, ink, and drawing paper that he hadn’t touched since his college graduation. Looking back to Chinese tradition and using it as a touchstone, he began blazing a new trail. After numerous experiments and much torturous effort, he produced his first batch of modern ink paintings a year later.
Liu was hired to teach in the arts department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. While there, he reconnected with the mother from whom he had been sundered for more than 20 years.
Painting a new tradition
Changes were afoot within the mainland Chinese painting community at around the same time. The mainland established the National Academy of Chinese Painting in 1981. The academy’s head, master landscape painter Li Keran, invited Liu to attend its opening gala. Liu also exhibited two paintings there, which were surprisingly well received.
The experience instigated what would become a tour of the whole of the mainland three years later, one on which Liu visited some 18 cities. His friends in Taiwan thought that he was taking too great a political risk in making the trip, but Liu disagreed. He explains, “I was seeking to build a new 20th-century tradition in Chinese painting, and mainland China is the wellspring of Chinese painting. How could I turn down the opportunity to proselytize modern ink painting there?”
But the trip resulted in him being blacklisted in Taiwan until 1989, when he was invited back for a solo exhibition.
“Pulling out tendons, stripping off skin”
The 85-year-old Liu says that he still works every day from the middle of the night to dawn. His doctor has urged him to give up his nighttime schedule, but he says, “I live on American time.”
He is currently working on a piece he calls Five Suns using the “pulling out tendons, stripping off skin” technique he invented in his youth. Once it is complete, he plans to exhibit it at September’s BRICS Summit in Xiamen.
For paintings in this style, Liu uses “Liu Kuo-sung paper,” a coarse-textured cotton paper with fibers “glued” to the surface by an extra layer of pulp applied over the top. Liu colors the paper with black ink, following the shape created by the fibers. At the end of the process, he pulls fibers off to create white lines that don’t exist in traditional ink painting. It is these white lines cleaving the black ink on the page that give the technique its name.
To Liu, the white lines represent an inversion of the black lines of traditional brush and ink painting, and serve as an inspiration to the revolutionary fringe of the movement to reinvent Chinese painting.
But tearing the fibers from the paper is a lot of work, and Liu often asks Li Mo-hua, his “number-one assistant,” to help out. She usually does so after Liu has gone to sleep, squatting on the floor, using her fingernails to feel for raised spots on the paper, and then slowly pulling off the fibers. “I’ve pulled off so many that my knuckles have become deformed,” she says, showing Liu the twisted fingers of her right hand.
Liu doesn’t respond. Instead, he exits his studio, and then clasps Li’s hand as he waits for the elevator. The two then stand, hand in hand, waiting for it to arrive.