In 1951, when I was taking the university entrance exam and filling out the list of departments I wished to enter, I wrote “Department of Art” in all seven spaces. From that time on, I’ve always looked at painting as my first calling.
I started to study traditional Chinese painting when I was 14 years old. During my freshman year in the university, my teacher in “Introduction to Art” said, “All art comes from life.” I had thought all the literati paintings I had been studying before came instead from people long ago. In my sophomore year, when I took courses on watercolor and oil painting, all we did were still life—sketches from life. Now these were coming from real life, so they were the start of a 180° turn to complete Westernization. My teachers taught us to begin studying from Impressionism, and from there we continued following the tracks of the masters of the various 20th century schools step-by-step, until we caught up to Abstract Expressionism. The result is, I discovered that all the painters of this school had developed this style under the influence of Chinese calligraphy. Robert Motherwell, for instance, directly transferred Chinese characters like zhou 州 unrepackaged into his compositions. I thought, if all the great masters of Western art are imitating Chinese art, then why aren’t we setting up shop mining the resources of our own rich artistic tradition, and instead imitating styles and forms that Western painters established by copying Chinese art? If “all art comes from life,” then we are opposed to imitating Song and Yuan painting because we just don’t live in the Song and Yuan dynasties. Could it be said that we live in a European or American environment? Thus in 1959, I proposed the following:
To Imitating the new cannot replace imitating the old;
Copying from the West cannot replace copying from China.
Everyone says, “The brush-and-ink have to follow the times.” Ours is the time when exchanges between Western and Chinese culture have been the most frequent in history, so if you want to express the characteristics of this time, you should go the East meets West route. Under this premise, we must, on one side, have a selective development and expansion of our own 6,000 years of national cultural tradition, while on the other side, have a selective absorption and internalization of the characteristics of modern civilization from Europe, America, and elsewhere—and then create the style of a new era in our Chinese culture. Therefore, in 1961 I was already shouting the “modernize Chinese painting” slogan.
To select the best from the two great cultural traditions of China and the West and create a unique, new, personal style from Chinese painting, I read a large quantity of works on Chinese and Western art history and on art theory. I discovered there were many huge gaps between the two great painting traditions, whether in terms of using tools and materials or expressing technique. However, in terms of artistic ideas and theoretical development, they were walking the same pathway—spiritually, the artist is always struggling to express freedom, while formally, there is always a movement from representation (sketching from life) through deformation (sketching the idea) to the free expression of abstract concepts.
In China, due to influence from the ideas of Laozi and Zhuangzi, painters moved quickly from sketching from life to sketching the idea. The ink-splashing technique was already invented in the Tang dynasty, but none of those works have come down to us. The earliest surviving Chinese paintings that sketch the idea is Shi Ke’s The Second Patriarch in Contemplation (now in a Japanese collection), which dates to the 10th century, and Liang Kai’s Immortal in Splashed Ink (now in the Taipei Palace Museum), which dates to the early 13th century.
However, because Western painting was influenced by the Christian belief that “all things in the universe are created by God,” Western artists never dared to alter God’s masterworks at will. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century, when the Impressionists first saw the representation of two-dimensional space in Japanese ukiyo-e prints in the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, that Western artists were finally stimulated and began making reforms. By the early 20th century, when German Expressionism emerged, the expressive techniques and creative forms of Western painting could finally be mentioned in the same breath as those of Liang Kai and Shi Ke. In other words, before the 20th century, Western painting lagged behind Chinese painting by as many as 700 to 1000 years.
Unfortunately, after China’s Yuan dynasty, literati entered and then controlled the painting scene, whereupon amateurs began leading the professionals, and professional artists were reduced to mere craftsmen and peddlers. The literati, meanwhile, were men who read the works of sages and worthies, men who took the civil service exams and became officials, so all day long they were writing reports, critiquing documents, composing poetry, and practicing calligraphy—and if they had some spare time in the evening, they would pick up their brush and do a bit of painting, with a calligrapher’s hand. If they couldn’t paint, what then? Just find an old painting and copy it. Over time, copying became the tradition of Chinese literati painting. Previously, for painting human figures there were the “eighteen methods of drawing,” and for painting landscapes there were the “thirty-six brushstrokes.” After the literati took control of painting, in the absence of the creation of any new technique or form, the theory that “calligraphy and painting flow from the same source” was proposed in order to support literati painting. In fact, calligraphy and painting do not flow from the same source at all—they only use the same brush. Because most of the literati were calligraphers, they argued that calligraphic technique enters into painting, and that calligraphic technique is precisely painting technique. They emphasized the use of calligraphic brushwork in painting, and went on to say that if someone’s calligraphy were poor, then his painting would certainly be poor. Moreover, since in calligraphy one usually keeps the brushtip at the center of the stroke (zhongfeng—the “centered tip”), they finally came up with an erroneous proposition that bears the hallmarks of an obsession: “If one does not use the “centered tip", one cannot produce a good painting.”
I perceived that the literati had pushed Chinese painting into a dead end. Thus in 1964, when I published my essay, “A Discussion of Painting Techniques,” I could not help but focus on techniques in the history of Chinese painting that dispensed with the brush, such as splashing the ink, breaking it, snapping white powder, blowing the ink into cloud shapes, using washes, staining, stone-grinding, drying, sprinkling white powder on wash, painting with one's hair, with lotus pods, with sugar cane pulp, with paper fiber, with water, fire, fingers, and so on. The reason I mentioned these freely creative techniques, of which art historians had once spoken with reverence and praise, is that they dispense with the brush and especially the “centered-tip.” I hoped only that those conservative literati painters would be able to free themselves from that narrow, feudal, monolithic “discourse of the brush-and-ink.” The outcome: no response whatsoever.
By the early 1970s, I really felt that Chinese painters were in such critical condition that I had to resort to strong medicine, so I wrote another essay to shout out the message of staging a “revolution against the centered-tip” and a “revolution against the brush.” The conservative forces in Taiwan and Hong Kong immediately rose en masse to attack me, even going so far as to label me “red” and say I was a fellow traveler of the Communist Party. Things got scary for a while, enough to make me jittery. Fortunately, Chang Lung-yang, who once had been the president of National Taiwan Academy of Arts in Panchiao, met with Chiang Ching-kuo and explained that this was all a dispute between new and old factions that had nothing to do with politics, and thus saved my friends and me. In fact, besides those who scolded me for “recounting the past but forgetting my ancestors,” there was a good friend, an architect, who also criticized me. He compared the brush-and-ink with the pillars and beams of a building and said that if a Chinese painting had no brush-and-ink it simply wouldn’t constitute a painting. Because too many essays criticizing and upbraiding me appeared in so short a time, I could not respond to them one by one, so I told myself at the time, let’s see what happens after ten years. I firmly believed I was ahead of my own time.
As it turns out, in less than a decade, the world’s first covered athletic stadium without any pillars or beams was built! The interior space was big enough to accommodate any football or baseball game. Later on my architect friend gave me the thumbs up and said, “You had foresight! You had foresight!” Then I explained to him: That Chinese painting brush had been used by countless painters for more than a thousand years, so there was really only limited room for it to develop any further. To expand the realm of Chinese painting, it had become necessary to remove the pillar (the brush).
Meanwhile, I explained to him my own view about the brush-and-ink: The “brush” is only the trace it leaves behind as it moves across the painting. If this trace is good and we say, “The brush was skillfully used,” then what is this trace? Doesn’t it just simply dots and lines? Therefore, one can simply says “The brush is simply dots and lines!” As for the ink, it’s only a byword for color. In Chinese painting, washes are applied after all the dots and lines are finished. Sometimes the washes use ink and sometimes colored pigments, but when applying the washes, it is always one block at a time, in order to present the effect of surface areas. If the washes aren’t applied well, we say, “The ink wasn’t skillfully applied!” Therefore, “The ink is color and surface area!” and “The brush-and-ink” consists of “dots, lines, and colors!” The wrinkle method (cunfa) is “the method for producing texture.” Moreover, dots, lines, and colors are fundamental elements of all painting—they are not at all unique to Chinese painting. If Chinese painters can free themselves from the narrow, feudal discourse of literati painting, then the horizons really open up, and you can soar freely.
It was precisely because of this rebellious personality and thinking of mine that no art department and art college in Taiwan dared to hire me, and I was pushed into an architecture department where I was teaching Western-style painting. Right around that time I was also using oil painting to blend Chinese and Western styles. I would use plaster
of Paris as a base on the canvas, and then use turpentine while brushing the oil paints to create the wash effects seen in ink painting. However, I got a kind of wake-up call from the science of building materials! One of the fundamental theories of material science is that no matter what material you use, you should make the fullest use of its properties—you can’t use the properties of material A as a substitute for the properties of material B, otherwise you get falsehood and deception. At the time I was criticizing the use of reinforced concrete to build buildings in the style of wooden palatial buildings as a kind of deception. But then I reflected on my own use of oils to express the flavors and effects of ink painting. Wasn’t that also deceptive?
By that time I had already completed a number of large paintings and had established my own style. Two of my paintings had already been collected by the Art Institute of Chicago in the United States. But still I determinedly abandoned the oil painting that I had done for seven or eight years, and I returned to the paper and ink media of Eastern painting schools. During the two-year period of 1961 to 1963, I ran back and forth among all the paper shops in Taipei and paper mills in Nantou, trying to paint on all kinds of paper. It was then that I really realized how difficult and laborious it is to think up a new creative pathway. Later on I jokingly called these two years the time of my “labor pains.”
During this time I discovered that the greatest difference in traditional expressive forms between Chinese and Western painting is that in Chinese paintings, compositions are woven together mainly from dots and lines, while in Western paintings, compositions tend to be structured from the relationship among planar surfaces. However, all of those dots and lines in Chinese painting are black. If it were possible to add white dots and lines, wouldn’t that expand the realm of expression for Chinese painting? Guided by this idea, I recalled everything I had seen while visiting the paper mills. Before they make paper, they take the bark, dissolve it with lime, and then beat the fine fibers into paper. The coarse pulp that cannot be dissolved is discarded. Then I thought, if I take this unwanted coarse pulp and press it against the paper surface, then tear it away after I paint on it, wouldn’t that leave white dots and lines? I was so pleased when I thought of this! Later I contacted several paper mills, but they were unwilling to supply me. Finally, I managed to convince the boss of Taiwan Cotton Paper Manufactory Co., Ltd., but he demanded that I order at least two reams. At the time I was terribly poor and I have to borrow the money from friends and family to pay for the paper. After receiving the special ordered paper, I painted with the kind of wild strokes found in The Second Patriarch in Contemplation, and after tearing away the fibers, the white lines immediately appeared. After some brief experimentation, I had perfected my personal style mixing black and white dots and strokes. The kind of pride I felt then is really hard to describe, but I imagined that it was no less than the joy a woman feels after the birth of her first child.
Interestingly enough, the literati painters of the past often boasted about being influenced by the thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi, and that they sketched not the reality but the idea, but they never touched on the core concept of Lao-Zhuang philosophy—Dao or “the Way.” The core concept of Dao, is the “yin-yang dialectic.” Daoists interpret the myriad phenomena of the universe in terms of this yin-yang dialectic. I had not expected that my addition of white lines would become like hitting the mark by unorthodox means. At last, Chinese painting that mixes black and white dots and lines could really express the Daoists’ yin-yang dialectic. Perhaps this is my accidental contribution! The Shandong Museum purposively organized a touring retrospective exhibition called “Tension of White Line” (2013), which marked the birth of a new lineage in the history of Chinese painting, and it attracted notice from far and wide.
Moreover, because of the success of the experiment with white lines, I subsequently raised the proposition, “Artist's studio is a laboratory, not a factory for reproducing traditional paintings,” since the history of human civilization was created by two kinds of people: the scientists, for material civilization, and the artists, for the spiritual civilization. The reason a scientist becomes a scientist is that he must have some kind of new idea, and to prove that idea is correct, he must go to the lab and do experiments. If the results prove his idea is correct, then he will have made a discovery—and the discovery is what makes a scientist. The most a technician without any discovery can do is teach in a university. Scientists and artists aren’t different at all—both are creators of human civilization, and both first need to have some kind of new way of thinking or a new intuition. As an artist, if you want to express your idea, and somehow it is impossible to express it with traditional techniques and materials, then you must experiment with new techniques and develop new materials. The paper that I use is now called “Liu Kuo-Sung paper,” and the white lines I invented are called “fiber texturing” strokes. Both were created in this spirit of experimentation.
In 1971, The Chinese University of Hong Kong invited me to serve as the chairman of its Dept. of Fine Arts, in order to reform that department—this was the moment when the "hero finally had a place to use his martial prowess". In 1973, while in the midst of reforming the whole curriculum, I started the world’s first “Modern Ink Painting” course, together with a “Certificate Program in Modern Ink Painting” through its off-campus Dept. of Extramural Studies (now known as the School of Continuing and Professional Studies), both of which used experimental approaches in instruction and opposed the practice of copying. I think that art education in the past was influenced by the educational theory which holds that “learning is like a pyramid.” That is, one started by copying the techniques of the masters from various schools—this was called “laying the foundation.” The broader the foundation, the higher the pyramid, and the greater the excellence. You had to build the foundation very well, and only then begin to talk about creating things. I call this educational method, “First seek excellence, then seek difference.” But then I reflected on this and proposed a different instructional approach, “First seek difference, then seek excellence,” because new ways of thinking are often found only through experimentation and practice. Traditional copy-based art instruction taught you that the broader you make your foundation, the better. In the future, it was claimed, you will tower above everyone else. But the result was the complete opposite: the broader and better the foundation, the stiffer you became; the deeper tradition’s traps became, the less creativity you had. Look at modern skyscrapers—which one of them has such a broad foundation? They’re more like pillars, but each one of them is taller than the pyramids. Their foundations are secured at depth, and the deeper the foundation, the taller the building. Skyscrapers’ foundations require only professionalism, depth, and refinement—they don’t require breadth. I think that the “learning is like a pyramid” notion is a kind of universal educational ideal, but the teaching of art is teaching for a profession, so I raised the idea, “Make art like the building of a skyscraper.” Through this new experimental teaching method of mine, which uses the classroom as a lab, not a traditional painting-copying factory, many creative new ink painters have already been cultivated in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, and many of them have already achieved worldwide renown.
On November 1, 1981, when the Academy of Traditional Chinese Paintings was formally established in Beijing, I accepted an invitation from Li Keran, its president, to participate in its opening ceremony and exhibition. On February 8, 1983, I accepted an invitation from the Jiang Feng, the Chairman of the China Artist Association and the president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, to hold a solo exhibition at The National Art Museum of China and deliver three lectures at the Central Academy. The exhibition then went on a three-year tour that included 18 major cities, from Harbin in the north to Urumqi in Xinjiang in the west. I also continued to deliver lectures at various art academies and leading universities and to promote my innovative ideas on the studio-as-laboratory everywhere. I gained the support of many young artists. I also became the first person for cross-strait cultural exchange.
In 1966, I was awarded a grant from the John D. Rockefeller III Fund to travel around the world for two years. Thus in the summer if 1967, when I was traveling in Switzerland and saw the snow-covered Alps, I leapt for joy—and got a scolding from my wife, who was
still wearing her Swedish wooden clogs. After returning to Taiwan, I still wanted to express in painting my feelings about that crystalline radiance of snowy mountains, but late in 1968, before I had painted anything that I thought satisfactory, the Apollo 7 spacecraft sent back the first photograph of the whole Earth, which in itself was earth-shaking. Inspired, I immediately turned my full attention to the advent of the Space Age. Thus in early 1969, I produced my first space painting (Which Is Earth?), and when I sent it out to the United States for inclusion in “Mainstreams ’69: the Second Annual Marietta College International Competitive Exhibition for Painting and Sculpture,” it promptly won first prize. At the same time, I was praised for being “the most sensitive contemporary painter.” I felt deeply encouraged, so from this time I devoted myself completely to this new realm and produced a series of richly and heavily colored paintings. In 1974, a large illustrated volume published in France (L’art abstrait. Tome 4: 1945-1970. Amérique, Afrique, Asie, Océanie) included my Which Is Earth? (C).
By 1975, I had grown tired of the space paintings, and I thought about experimenting with new expressive techniques. I had a profound attraction for two terms in the history of Chinese art: one was “fire painting,” and the other was “water painting.” I began experimenting with fire painting. I burned the paper with incense, set it over smoke, and baked it over fire, with unsuccessful results. Later on I experimented with water paintings. I started by putting water in a washbasin, dripping ink on the surface, and as soon as I saw a bit of the ink floating on the surface, I spread xuan paper over it to absorb it. Sure enough, the paper absorbed the floating ink, and the movement or stillness of the water directly affected the patterns formed. Afterwards I used a bathtub, and to control the ink patterns I used turpentine, gasoline, and other volatile oils, which would produce many different effects. After a long period of time, I could control the infinite transformations in the ink. How proud I was! This water-marbling technique is something I developed after I had gone to teach painting at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. I spent ten years creating a series of water-marbled paintings. Some were abstract, and some were semi-abstract or comparatively representational landscapes. By 1985, I had developed complete mastery of the water-marbling technique, and at the same time, I felt once more that the challenge had disappeared, so I thought again about experimenting with new methods.
We all know that in traditional Chinese painting, there were the techniques of splashing the ink and letting the ink bleed. I collectively call my water-marbling and earlier experimental paper-rubbing and cloth-rubbing techniques, “ink-rubbing methods.” In 1986, I began experimenting with a new method which I later called the “ink-staining method.” It consists of pairing two sheets of xuan paper together, then wetting them, then splashing ink on them, either by pouring or sprinkling. Letting the ink flow through and between the two sheets creates natural patterns. Wait until they are completely dry, and then separate the two sheets. The ink tones and patterns have already been fixed. Because the ink-rubbing methods or ink-staining method are all semi-automatic, they are dynamic, not monotonous. If they are half-naturally formed and then further refined by the artist, it’s easy to reach the stage at which “heaven and humankind are united as one.” During my earliest experiments with the ink-rubbing and ink-staining techniques, I always used xuan paper, but later on I also used cotton paper as well as other types of absorbent Chinese paper. Ultimately I had used everything including non-absorbent foreign paper.
In 2000, my first visit to Jiuzhaigou really shook me, since its pristine scenery is so beautiful. The water of its lakes especially shows rich variety, and the color of each lake is not quite the same. That kind of beauty is really impossible to describe with words, so one can only use painting to express it. After returning home, I used all the techniques and materials I had and still could not bring forth what I wanted to express. For several months the same kind of pain and helplessness I had felt in the 1960s reemerged. One day, I was sitting in a daze on the massage chair in my studio, when I suddenly recalled the time I was teaching in the architecture department and watching students draw blueprints with that kind of semi-transparent tracing paper. I thought I would give it a try—I had never used this kind of Western paper. It is completely non-absorbent. When I started using the water-marbling technique, the ink on the water surface could still attach to the paper, but the results weren’t good. Later on, I switched to the ink-staining technique and gradually got results. I began floating the xuan paper over the tracing paper, and then cotton paper or my Kuo-sung paper, and finally I used tracing paper for both layers—the results were getting even better. Then I made rippling patterns with all kinds of different colors, and it would be hard for other people to imagine how satisfied I was. In the past, painters in China and in the West did not paint purely water—they also painted cliffs, trees, rocks, and houses along with water. Even Monet, the French Impressionist, added a few water lilies to his ponds, but in my Jiuzhaigou series I paint only water—only the changes in the ripple patterns at different times and under different wind directions. I also created a number of big paintings more than four meters long. Thus far I have painted three or four hundred Jiuzhaigou paintings—it’s a real delight!
The start of my space paintings back in the 1960s interrupted my experiments with painting snow-covered mountains, but the desire to paint them always lurked in my mind. In 1987, I went to Tibet because I wanted to see the snow of the Himalaya Mountains. The outcome, because I did not prepare myself psychologically, was that I suffer serious high altitude sickness, or many Chinese called a “headband-tightening spell” (like Monkey in The Journey to the West) and just stayed in my Lhasa hotel room. I never saw any snowy mountain. Finally in 2000, when Tibet University invited me to lecture, I raised one request—that they would take me to see Qomolangma (Mt. Everest). I was then already approaching 70, and only after they made inquiries everywhere about my health and learned it was okay did they finally consent. That time, I was accompanied by the Chairman of the China Artist Association, Han Shuli, up to Dingri, and then a young Tibetan painter accompanied me to the base camp for the main peak. Before this trip, Chairman Han warned me: If it’s raining under dark skies above, then come down immediately, and if the sky is blue, then stay there no more than half an hour—absolutely never linger for any length of time! As it turned out, conditions were clear the whole way there, and we saw endless layers of all kinds of snow-covered Himalayan peaks. As soon as we reached Qomolangma, the view became more expansive as the mountain thrust high above us. At the time, the sun was shining everywhere and wisps of colorful clouds were twisting around, so that the peak would be bright one moment and dark the next, or it would suddenly disappear and reappear. The endless changes in its appearance were stunning to behold.
When the young artist asked if I wanted to head back, I realized all of a sudden that more than two hours had already passed. Now I really understood what it means to reach the realm of forgetting oneself. I returned to Lhasa, where I did not stay long, and took a plane to Chengdu. Suddenly I could not hear anything from my left ear, and since then I cannot hear from my left ear. However I created a “Tibetan Series.” by using the “fiber-texturing stroke” technique. In the past, this consisted of painting on the special-fibered paper and then tearing the fibers from the surface. Now I use the back of the painting for my Tibet series: I would let the ink and pigments soak through the paper from front to back. Since the heaviness, lightness, moistness, and dryness of the ink differs, great differences appear once it soaks through to the back, and the appearance of the white dots and lines creates white-black and deep-shallow texture contrasts in the snowy mountains, with unusually good results. Past historical masters have all left paintings of snowy mountains, but to do white they only leave a blank space—there is no texturing of the white rocks. Now I feel that I have filled that void.
Besides the Himalayas, I have also traveled all over northern and southern China, viewed its many mountains and rivers of renown, and painted a number of works showing Mt. Huang, Zhangjiajie, and the Silk Road, and I still have not exhausted my inspiration. Later on I might paint a few things existing in my mind as I plan to live to 100!
I’ve already spent sixty years teaching, promoting, and creating the modernization of Chinese painting, with the purpose of imparting a modern face and spirit to Chinese ink painting, which goes back a long way, so that it becomes a vehicle for Chinese culture. The new mainstream in the art of Chinese painting has already gained our countrymen’s acceptance as well as international recognition, and it has become a new kind of painting that represents China as it communicates with the world arts community. In recent years the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in succession have held exhibitions of new Chinese ink paintings, and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre held the 1st Ink Asia art fair. I myself won a place in history in 2007 when the Palace Museum, China’s top cultural institution, held the special exhibition “Universe in the Mind: 60 Years of Painting by Liu Guosong,” and since then I have received the highest honors on each side of the Taiwan Strait—the National Award for Arts (in 2008) and the first Award for Lifetime Achievement from the China Arts Awards (in 2011), for the lifetime of effort and energy that I have put into establishing a new tradition in Chinese painting—so now I’m completely satisfied. I can die without regret.