The Master of Survival : Art: Liu Haisu, father of modern Chinese art, has faced many adversaries--from Nationalists to Communists to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. At 100, he has outlived them all.
Whenever Liu Haisu felt glum about the prospects of continuing his life as an artist--as he did when the prudish Nationalists jailed him in the 1920s for using nude models in his Shanghai art classes--he consoled himself with the old Chinese maxim:
“All extremes become their opposite.”
Few countries have experienced more vicissitudes, cycles of purge and renewal, than has 20th-Century China. Few artists have suffered more abuse from so many different quarters than has Liu, who is widely recognized as the father of modern Chinese art.
The governing Nationalists said he was too radical. The Communists who turned them out in 1949 attacked him for failing to produce “workers” art. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that began in the mid-1960s, he was forced by the Red Guards to clean the toilets of the art institute he founded.
In the end, Liu survived his enemies by outliving them. The extremes had become their opposites. Liu, who just turned 100, emerged triumphant.
Among events marking the artist’s 100th birthday is the planned opening next month of a museum chronicling the still-working master’s art, life and times.
China’s Ministry of Culture has invested $20 million in the project, the inauguration of which awaits final inventorying and, where necessary, restoration of Liu’s collection. “After all the adversity I’ve overcome, of course this is gratifying,” said Liu.
“It’s what’s keeping him alive,” adds his wife and former student, 80-year-old Xia Yiqiao.
Born in coastal Jiangsu province in 1894, Liu showed an early proclivity for traditional Chinese painting and as a teen-ager set out for Shanghai to continue his studies.
Those were heady days for a young artist in China.
The last imperial dynasty had just fallen, and excitement at the prospect of building a modern new nation was pervasive. Young intellectuals maintained that it would not be enough to update China’s industry. The very weight of the country’s millennia-old civilization would hinder its advancement, they argued, and new approaches were needed to address deep-rooted problems.
This gave rise to what became known as the New Culture Movement--an effort to overhaul traditional Chinese society using the industrially developed West as a guide. To this end, the new republic dispatched its best young minds to Europe for study, and as a painter, Liu went to France.
The serene old artist became animated when recounting those days during a recent interview.
“Paris in the ‘20s, what a magical time,” he rhapsodized. “Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, I knew them all well.” In addition to the Modernists’ pioneering style, Liu was deeply influenced and impressed by his European colleagues’ intrepid approach to their art.
“Like Cezanne and Gauguin before them, these men were profoundly individual artists. They seemed heedless of risk in pursuit of realizing their personal vision. This, above all, was the lesson I gleaned from that time and those painters.”
Liu returned home determined to infuse China’s new generation of artists with this independent spirit. He established the nation’s first modern art institute, the Shanghai Fine Arts Academy. The new school’s curriculum emphasized drawing, sculpture and oil painting, and encouraged students to innovate and adopt an engage approach to both their art and life.
Liu’s academy was not only China’s first co-ed college, but also introduced the controversial use of nude models in life drawing classes.
Not surprisingly, this innovation met with conservative opposition. In one infamous episode, self-proclaimed defenders of China’s heritage ransacked Liu’s school and pressured the Nationalist government into briefly jailing the artist as a “traitor to tradition.”
Liu’s progressive efforts encountered hostility not only from reactionary forces. Artists affiliated with the political left held that the Socialist Realism then ascendant in the Soviet Union was the only style appropriate to China’s stage of social development.
Proponents of these opposing views clashed openly on the occasion of China’s 1930 First National Art Exhibition held in Shanghai. Communist apparatchik Xu Beihong asserted in a controversial article that the best thing about the exhibition was that “none of that brazen stuff by Cezanne, Matisse or Bonnard” had been included. He went on to proclaim that “it would be an outrageous waste of public funds and probably little better than importing a load of morphine or heroin.”
Liu fervently refuted Xu’s statements, declaring Cezanne the “uncrowned king” of 20th-Century art and accusing Xu of “echoing the pre-1895 Parisian marketplace.”
Thus the stage was set for a battle over political correctness in art, a conflict that is still very much alive in China today and one to which Liu lends moral weight as an advocate of free expression.
The 1931 Japanese invasion of China served to subordinate aesthetics to more immediate concerns. But on several occasions over the next decade and a half, particularly at a number of exhibitions held in the wartime capital of Chungking, the conflict over the utility of art reared its head.
Following the 1949 Communist rise to power, Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s dictate that “art must serve political ends” was enshrined.
Predictably, Liu suffered for his liberal views. He was not allowed to resume teaching, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was forced to watch as Red Guards burned his invaluable collection of Chinese and Western paintings.
He watched patiently as he survived his political enemies one by one, until finally the 1976 death of Mao provided Liu with a new lease on art and life.
Following the overthrow of Mao’s widow and her Gang of Four and the ascendance of Deng Xiao-ping as paramount leader, Liu was fully exonerated. He was reinstated as honorary headmaster of his old school and has been given free rein to work. Today, Liu says he has only one remaining ambition: “To have painted in three different centuries.”
And as his wife ushered him away for a rest, the old artist imparted this hard-earned wisdom: “Humanity seeks truth, justice and beauty. Through history’s vicissitudes, these things remain constant.”