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Liu Haisu: Artistic Rebel

He was a painter, an art teacher and an artistic rebel. Liu Haisu (1896-1994) was a brilliant artist who used his unique blend of European and Chinese techniques to revolutionize art education in China.


Born into a feudal merchant family in Jiangsu, Liu had a rebellious streak. Never a stranger to controversy or hardship, at 14 Liu went to Shanghai to learn western painting on his own. Upon returning to his hometown the next year, Liu set up his own painting school, teaching and continuing to learn painting by himself. In 1912, in order to escape from an arranged marriage, Liu fled to Shanghai, where he established the Shanghai Art School with Wu Shiguang and Zhang Yuguang.


The Nude Model Controversy


In March 1914, Liu Haisu opened the first painting course to use live models in China at the Shanghai Art School, yet at first he could only find a male model. In 1917, the school held an exhibition of works including some examples of nudes. This raised a huge controversy. Liu was not troubled by the situation. Instead, he chose to play it up. Soon, his nudes weren't restricted to boys. The first female model made her debut in the school's studio in 1920. The criticism and public reproach that followed deeply affected Liu. Although western art was filtering into China, the use of nudes at the time upset the prevailing Chinese morality that didn't endorse women sitting around naked while a roomful of people stared and drew. Liu wrote a public letter in 1925 to defend the nude models, which only brought him more flak.



Nude Model at Shanghai Art School


In 1926, even Sun Chuanfang, the powerful warlord got involved. According to a memoir titled Naked Girls, Shanghai 1927. Sun wrote to Liu saying that "no one would say the art school was less than perfect if it refrained from using nude models". But Liu ignored the advice. One month later, the local government prohibited further use of nude models in the school.


The controversy made Liu a household name overnight. According to the memoir, he was so frustrated that it led him to declare, "I resist! I resist! I will never shut down our school! I am born for art and I would die for art! I will never give in!"


In addition to the nude model incident, Liu also broke the tradition of painting inside by taking students to West Lake to draw from nature in 1918. In 1919, he recruited female students, making Shanghai Art School the first to take in both male and female students. In the history of art education, Liu Haisu created several firsts, which not only contributed to art history and education in China, but also revealed China's difficult course of development towards modernization.


Respect to Cai Yuanpei


Liu once wrote to Cai Yuanpei declaring his loyalty and respect for his only teacher. Liu was so grateful to Cai, he would often tell his friends that without Cai, there would be no Liu. As a Chinese educator and intellectual leader, Cai's encouragement and support for Liu was critical for Liu's future success as an artist.


In the autumn of 1921, Liu wrote to Cai expressing his wish to draw in Beijing. Cai invited Liu to give a speech on contemporary European art in the art department of Peking University. On December 14, Liu saw Beijing for the first time.



"Beijing Qianmen Gate"


Liu was impressed by Cai's modesty and concern for his students. While in Beijing, Liu became acquainted with such scholars as Li Dazhao, Hu Shi, Xu Zhimo and Chen Duxiu. Cai also introduced him to Beijing artists with whom Liu became close. Liu painted 36 pieces of work during this time. They were so highly praised by Cai that he decided to hold an exhibition for Liu. He even wrote a paper in response to those who doubted Liu's artistic merits.



"Heaven of Temple"


At 26, Liu was still an unknown. The Chinese art world had yet to embrace western techniques such as post-impressionism, a fact that made many skeptical of Liu's merit. Cai's promotion and defense of Liu's talents gave the young artist the confidence he needed to pursue his passion.


Cai was also influential in arranging Liu's trip to Europe and his Berlin exhibition, which were critical events in Liu's life. To express his gratitude, Liu set up the Cai Jiemin Scholarship at Shanghai Art School, and the Cai Jiemin Art Library after Cai's death.


Journeys to Europe


With Cai's help, Liu started his journey to Europe in February 1929. In two years Liu traveled to Italy, Germany, Sweden, France, Greece and other European countries to study European art. At The Louvre Museum, Liu imitated masterpieces of artists such as of Cezanne, Delacroix and Rembrandt.


His works ranged from landscapes to still life and portraiture, adding up to 300 pieces. During his stay in Europe, Liu got acquainted with Matisse, Picasso, and other impressionist artists and exchanged ideas with them. After returning to China in 1932, Liu held an exhibition of his European efforts in Shanghai and Nanjing. The exhibition lasted for 16 days, attracting more than 100,000 visitors.


Whereas his first European excursion was dedicated to learning, Liu's second trip to Europe in 1933 was dedicated to education. Traveling to countries such as Germany and Holland, Liu introduced Chinese art to the west, with speeches that ranged in theme from the changes of style in Chinese schools to the life and beliefs of Chinese artists. His efforts greatly enhanced western understanding of Chinese art.


This period also saw the formation of Liu's own style. Back to the early 20th century, the European art brought to China by the New-Culture Movement already left an influence on Liu, which was only deepened by his two journeys to Europe. Liu held the belief that art could not be analyzed rationally. In a paper titled The comparison between Liu Haisu and Xu Beihong on their teaching methods of painting, Liu is recorded as saying "artists should not be governed by others, should not be restricted by nature, and should not be enslaved by money. Art is beyond everything. Art is the expression of artist's personality, individuality and life."


Ten visits to Yellow Mountain


Yellow Mountain was greatly appealing to Liu, and was also his favorite theme . From 1918 to 1988, Liu visited Yellow Mountain ten times. His works on the theme of Yellow Mountain could be counted as a vivid record for Liu's artistic life.


From 1918 to 1949, Liu visited Yellow Mountain five times, during which he did a lot of sketches and drafts for oil paintings. These works were mainly studies for oil painting something Liu was still exploring.



"Clouds Sea at Yellow Mountai" (1954)


Liu's sixth visit to Yellow Mountain in 1954 was quite special. He met another artist Li Keran, who was once Liu's student, but by then already a master in Chinese landscape painting. At that time, Li was attempting to improve the form, content and the system of brush and ink in Chinese painting. The two artists worked together and exchanged ideas on art. Though their techniques of expression differed, they shared a love for art and nature. This was a rewarding visit for both artists.



White Dragon Pool at Yellow Mountain (1980)


Liu continued his visits in 1980, 1981 and 1982, during which he created many works using the "ink and color splashing" method. His introduction of rich colors from western art into traditional Chinese painting strengthened the artistic expression of Chinese painting. Although over 80, Liu still felt strong enough to create. In most of his works from this period, Liu would include postscripts declaring himself to be 'only 87.'


At the age of 92, Liu realized his long-cherished wish, his tenth visit to Yellow Mountain. He spent about two months at the mountain, drawing nearly constantly. Inspired by the changing landscape at Yellow Mountain, Liu created some of his best work.


Pioneer of Art Education


Liu is also believed to be one of the founding fathers of modern Chinese art education. He started his art education career in 1912. After ten years of struggle from 1916 to 1926, he took the lead in establishing the use of nude models for art education in China.



"Yellow Mountain as My Teacher" (1988)


Liu was a major influence in bringing impressionism and post-impressionism into China. As early as June 1919, Liu introduced impressionism in his book A Brief History of Western Landscape Painting. He also started the first art magazine in China titled Art, leading theoretic research on art.


As a teacher, Liu maintained that painters should combine the knowledge of formal art theory with their natural talent and personal judgment, a departure from the Chinese tradition of copying the compositions and techniques of old masters. Liu adopted the teaching methods of most Western art academies. The training for sketch skills as the foundation of painting Liu advocated is still being used in the contemporary art schools today.


(chinaculture March 20, 2006)

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