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Evolution Through Revolution

Artists Wu Guanzhong (1919 – 2010) and Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932), both titans of modern ink painting, are well-known for pursuing their own respective revolutions in Chinese ink. Independently, they each developed a similar language of modern ink. When they finally met in 1981, both had established their own practices, each one bearing great similarity to the other.

In the absence of the Cultural Revolution, they would probably have met earlier. How then might their practices have developed? What would the face of modern ink be today? These are answers we will never know.

Liu Kuo-sung (currently based in Taipei and Shanghai) was in Singapore for the Ink Master Series held in conjunction with the National Gallery Singapore’s exhibition Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen & Palette.

Liu kuo-song at the National Gallery Singapore, speaking to a full house

Not one to mince his words, Liu shared with us his views on the evolution of ink art and the spirit of Chinese ink, as well as some personal stories about Wu Guanzhong:

On meeting Wu Guanzhong for the first time: Li Keran invited me to Beijing to give a speech for the inauguration of the Chinese Painting Research Institute in 1981. And when I was there, the organisers asked me if I was interested in meeting a Chinese Minister. I said, “No, I want to meet Wu Guanzhong instead.”

At that time, Wu was deemed to be an oil painter and not an ink (guohua) painter. Hence, he was not invited to the exhibition. I was living in Hong Kong then and I first saw Wu’s paintings in an art catalogue. His works are a combination of East and West and I have been an admirer of his works since. So, I hired a car and visited Wu at his home. He was living in government housing and the conditions were really humble. I could not help myself and asked, “Where do you paint?”

He pointed to the bed and said, “I overlay a wooden board (on the bed) and I paint on it.”

When I heard that, tears almost rolled down my face.

On his friendship with Wu Guanzhong: I became great friends with Wu Guanzhong and we kept in touch constantly since 1981. I was the first person to introduce Wu to the art world outside of mainland China. I wrote an article to introduce him in the Apollo (wenxing文星) magazine in Taiwan. He was featured on the magazine cover! He also wrote articles about me. Whenever I went to Beijing, I would definitely visit him. Later when he came to Taiwan for exhibitions, we would have dinner together.

On his many similarities with Wu Guanzhong (both are prolific artists and writers, deemed to be pioneers in the modernisation of Chinese ink painting):  Yes, there are many similarities between us. I proposed discarding the central brushstroke and discarding the brush (ge zhong feng de ming革中锋的命,ge bi de ming革笔的命). Later, Wu wrote the article Pen and Ink Equate to Nothing (bi mo deng yu ling笔墨等于零). We hold similar views about ink traditions.

A few years ago, a professor at Stanford University wanted to hold a two-man show for Wu and me, but unfortunately, it did not go ahead due to the lack of funds. I think a two-man show would have been interesting given the many similarities in our practices. So far, there has not been an in-depth comparative study on our practices. Maybe you can explore that!

Moonwalk (1969) – in this work which appropriated the iconic photograph of American astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s historic moonwalk on the Apollo 11 mission, Liu has used calligraphic strokes to depict the uneven surfaces of the moon.

On being a Taiwanese artist: I don’t get involved in politics. In the 1960s, I was pushing for the modernisation of Chinese painting and the conservatives in Taiwan were attacking me and even accusing me of being a Communist. During the White Terror period, it was a dangerous accusation.

Before I agreed to visit China in 1981, I made three requests: first, there should not be any media coverage. Secondly, I should not be photographed. And finally, I should not be interviewed. At that time, I still had relatives in Taiwan and I was afraid of affecting them. Even though I tried to keep a low profile, word got back that I had visited China. After that, I was not allowed to return to Taiwan.

I was part of the organising and planning committee for the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and I had gone back to Taiwan twice for meetings to prepare for the launch of the museum. However, in 1983, when I was invited to its official opening ceremony, the Taiwanese government did not approve my entry visa. This was because I had been to China earlier.

In 1988, the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts invited me to give a speech at its opening ceremony. I reapplied for the Taiwan entry visa and got rejected again. Taiwan residents have been permitted to visit China since 1987. Many artists criticised the government openly for penalising me, and as a result, the Taiwanese government quietly sent me the entry visa. I was able to finally return to Taiwan and I gave a speech at the official opening of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung.

The Song of Rainfed Waterfall (1992), a work from Liu’s Tibet series

On the development of Chinese ink in Taiwan and Hong Kong: In the 1960s, I began to campaign for the modernisation of Chinese paintings. At that time in Taiwan, there was a group of artists actively promoting Chinese ink. When I moved to Hong Kong in 1971, I also influenced developments in ink (there). (Ink) art development in Taiwan started earlier, but in Hong Kong, there is currently a lot of external support, like that accorded by the auction houses. Now, there are even specialised Chinese ink auctions. The development of Chinese ink in Hong Kong is going a further distance (than in Taiwan).

On modern and contemporary ink: All current ink artists are contemporary ink artists. Contemporary ink artists can also be painting traditional ink works. Contemporary ink refers to a time period. Modern ink refers to the spirit of ink. It is about the experimental spirit. Without the experimental spirit, it cannot be called modern ink.

Silence in Movement (1963), from the Calligraphic Abstraction series

On the evolution of ink art: I have no objections towards absorption of external influences. The key is to absorb and digest. If you do not digest (the external influences), you will die of indigestion! With regard to Western influence, (this is something) we need to selectively absorb and digest.

Since the 1960s, I have said that a combination of Chinese and Western ideas is inevitable (in Chinese art) because we have many cultural exchanges between the East and the West. Art needs to reflect these interactions and our paintings should be a combination of Chinese and Western cultures. But how do we combine Chinese and Western cultures? Some artists will graft Western techniques directly onto Chinese paintings. That is wrong. We cannot copy traditional literati paintings, nor can we completely adopt Western styles. We must be selective on how we choose to promote our culture.

Multifaceted Mountain (1979), from the Water Rubbing series of works. Broadly, Liu’s water rubbing technique involves the dripping of ink into a basin of water. The ink floats to the top and paper is placed on the surface of the water. Parts of the ink are then absorbed into different areas of the paper. Once the paper is prepared, Liu proceeds to work on it further (for example through dyeing, or the adding of brushstrokes).

On the spirit of Chinese ink: Now many artists use installation techniques for Chinese ink works. Chinese ink has become a mere material. The cover of the Ink Art catalogue published by the Metropolitan Museum shows a Chinese man with his face blackened by Chinese ink. That is not the promotion of Chinese traditions. That is not the promotion of Chinese ink.

If we use a Western framework and treat Chinese ink as a medium, it is wrong. We need to have our own framework. Our vertical axis is the five to six millennia of Chinese cultural history and tradition. The horizontal axis is the influence of Western modern art. We need to find our own coordinates. We need to find our positions in the intersection.

We must be clear on this point. Chinese ink is not just a medium. Chinese ink is the very DNA of Chinese art!



Read more about Liu Kuo-sung and his works here.

All images of artwork are courtesy of the artist

(Editor’s note: Our writer Yi Wen completed her Art History MA thesis on Liu Kuo-sung’s Space Series (1969-1973). If there is any interest to delve deeper, drop us an e-mail or leave a comment below, and she’ll be happy to regale you with more stories.)

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