A master of traditional Chinese painting, Liu Haisu (1895-1992) played a prominent role in the world of Chinese fine art for nearly seven decades.
Having founded the first Chinese school of fine arts in Shanghai in the 1920s, Liu became renowned for his superb skill and generous patronage in the disciplines of oil painting and traditional Chinese painting. To gain insight and inspiration from artists of diverse and very different cultures, he visited Japan, Europe and America, and he eventually he formed his unique and very definitive style.
The painter often visited Huangshan Mountain, each time creating works combining traditional and modern elements, while demonstrating a wealth of vigor and intensity. In the early 1980s Liu returned to the famous peak several times, visiting the Guangming Crest and Xihai Gate. Despite being well into his 80s, he sat again to paint his beloved subject, demonstrating not only physical endurance, but continuing creative abilities.
At an early age Liu Haisu became a key-figure in the course of the development of Chinese modern art. In 1912, the 17-year-old Liu founded the very first school of fine arts in China, the Shanghai Fine Arts School. Under Liu's tutorship, the school strived to cast-off the restraints of traditional formalism. Liu advised students to depart the studio to draw from nature and life. He supported respect for individuality and argued against conventions that restricted creative development.
At his school he encouraged the incorporation of elements from many different schools of painting, as well as a diversity of artistic styles. Liu's thinking, advanced for the time, allowed for a free and unrestrained academic atmosphere. During its heyday, the Shanghai Fine Arts School boasted an enrollment of 800 students and the institution was never allowed to be monopolized by a single artistic style, churning out students who would produce works easily traced back to one particular tutor. Liu not only focused on the fine arts at a higher-education level, but also he attempted to popularize fine arts education in China's elementary and middle schools. Thanks to his efforts, in 1923, when he was invited to participate in the examination and approval of the new educational system, art education was listed among compulsory subjects. Liu himself even helped compile and illustrate the new art textbooks.
Additionally, Liu was the first artist and educator in China to take the initiative in using life-study models. In 1914, Liu employed a body model in the Shanghai Fine Arts School-an unprecedented move in the country. This came as a shock to the traditional Chinese moral sense and caused something of a stir, with newspapers and magazines of the time competing with each other to be the first to report Liu's latest deeds. In 1917, at a school exhibition paintings of body models were for the first time exhibited to the Chinese public. This bold step brought Liu to be often criticized by staunch traditionalists. But he maintained his firm position on the matter, arguing the fundamental importance of this exercise to students of art.
Meanwhile, Liu was himself creating pioneering works of art, combining elements of traditional Chinese painting with the newly regarded western styles. Although the painter advocated the assimilation of new and more diverse painting styles into his own works and those of his students, he still held a great respect for the Chinese artistic traditions. In his Shanghai Fine Arts School he established a department of traditional Chinese painting, and employed many renowned masters as professors. When visiting Europe, he intently studied western art, seeking out the elements that may be useful for his own creative progression. However, Liu never lost his great esteem for Chinese painting, and continued to lecture on Chinese painting theories throughout his career.
Liu was one of China's earliest oil painters. His incorporation of traditional Chinese painting theories with the less restricted modern western painting styles paved the way for the development of oil painting styles maintaining distinctive Chinese features.
A true innovator, educator and champion of creativity, Liu Haisu left behind a legacy that will be long remembered in the world of art.
(China Pictorial April 25, 2006)