Liu Kuo-sung

My Creative Ideas and Practices

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:

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.

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 Kuo-sung,” 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.

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