The Scripture of the Missionary of Modern Ink Painting
－ The Mission of Creating Liu Kuo-sung’s Prints
In the art worlds of Taiwan and China, Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932) has been crowned the Father of Modern Ink Painting. However, Liu also holds another title; the Missionary of Modern Ink Painting. When Liu Kuo-sung founded the Fifth Moon Group in 1956, his wife Li Mo-hua described him as a missionary, due to his passion in promoting modern ink painting, with an almost religious zeal wherever he went. Even in the face of criticism or ridicule, Liu’s passion in the new genre never swayed. Although Liu is not religious, nor does he read the Bible, he gladly accepts the title of a missionary, and fully lives up to it, as a true missionary of modern ink painting.
Liu Kuo-sung’s faith is art, and modern ink paintings are his scripture. Over the last sixty years, Liu has spread word of his scripture around the world, showing his paintings in art exhibitions and discussing his art in academic seminars. From years of youth to this day in old age, Liu’s passion for modern ink painting has remained just as strong. What has changed is that Liu Kuo-sung is no longer slandered as a traitor to art.1 Due greatly to Liu’s efforts, the art world of Taiwan and China is no longer dominated by conservatives of traditional Chinese ink painting, and have gradually come to embrace modernism as a necessary development to ink painting. In terms of international recognition, Liu Kuo-sung’s artworks have entered public collections of over seventy museums and academic institutions worldwide. However, in the last several years, have they also entered the spotlight of the art market, and have since become extremely sought after.
When the Fifth Moon Group was founded in 1956, it was Taiwan’s first art group to specialize in modern ink painting. The group faced the duel challenges of Western painting and traditional Chinese ink painting, both of which were strong and popular movements. On one hand, Western painting, in imitation of the Impressionists, was considered fashionable among the young and educated. While on the other, conservatives, especially in academia, desperately called for the revival of traditional Chinese ink painting in the classical manner. Unsatisfied with the two extremes, Liu Kuo-sung boldly stated: “we are neither Chinese living in classical times, nor are we Westerners.”2 Despite suffering attacks and criticism from both sides, Liu continued down his chosen path to paint and write on modern ink; experimenting with new techniques of ink and wash, as well as publishing articles on his findings and beliefs. Comparable to a missionary, Liu Kuo-sung holds his scripture in one hand, and a sword in the other.
In addition to his own painting, Liu Kuo-sung is also passionate about teaching others how to paint. During his term as professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Liu created the Modern Ink and Wash Painting course for enrolled students, and also with the help of the extension school, created the Modern Ink and Wash Painting Diploma course, available to the general public. Also, in his exhibitions, Liu often demonstrates his own painting techniques, as a performance to further promote the new genre. In 1983 Liu was invited by Jiang Feng, the chairman of the Chinese Artists’ Association, for a solo exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, and to give a series of lectures starting at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. Over the next three years, Liu toured in eighteen cities throughout China, in numerous exhibitions and seminars, bringing modern ink painting to the long isolated Chinese art world.
Liu Kuo-sung often tells his students: “the art of painting is to constantly experiment,”3 and does exactly that himself. By examining Liu’s long journey of artistic creation, and the various innovations throughout his art, it is evident his spirit of experimentation has never diminished. In order to secure a rightful place in the history of art, an artist must have an unique and personal style. In retrospect, Liu Kuo-sung’s art is nothing less than the constant pursuit for innovation. During Liu’s early years, he discarded all traditional Chinese conventions of the brush, and boldly exclaimed to “revolutionize the brush.”4 He has since urged his students to rethink how they hold and execute the brush, and to personalize their painting instruments according to their own needs. In terms of style, Liu advocates to “first strive for individuality, then strive for perfection.”5 Liu deeply admires Taiwanese artists Chen Chi-kwan (1921 – 2009) and Yu Cheng-yao (1898 – 1993), both of whom have never trained in the classical Chinese tradition, but have nonetheless developed their own styles in ink painting, and have received international recognition for doing so. Their success serve as an inspiration to Liu’s students, as well as himself.
In fact, Liu Kuo-sung childhood was immersed in traditional Chinese ink painting, which he grew to renounce as an adult. Despite being well-trained in the art of calligraphy, Liu rarely displays this talent in public. He sees past the limitations of brush and ink in themselves, and has experimented with unconventional methods of applying ink onto paper. His success can be seen in his renowned techniques of water-rubbing and steeped ink. Through trial and error with different variations of rice paper, Liu has created his own paper with very dense fibers, which has been coined by art historians as Liu Kuo-sung Paper. What is truly remarkable about Liu’s innovations is his enthusiasm in sharing them with everyone, selflessly announcing his findings and techniques in public seminars and demonstrations. Since the days of the Fifth Moon Group, Liu has helped and sponsored countless artists and friends in scholarships and exhibitions. In recent years, Liu organized the Tension of White Line group exhibitions for his students to tour in museums across Taiwan and China. In this way, Liu Kuo-sung is not only an artist, but also an educator. He is a man on a mission – a mission to promote modern ink painting.
I have had the pleasure of knowing Liu Kuo-sung for over a decade, and the honor of co-authoring his biography, Universe in My Mind – the Artistic Journey of Liu Kuo-sung, published in 2007. Since opening Loftyart Gallery in 2012, and further managing Liu’s career, serious collectors in Taiwan and China have become very attuned to Liu’s paintings on the art market. Especially in the past several years, his paintings have become increasingly sought after, and in response their market value have skyrocketed. In order to continue promoting Liu’s art, Loftyart has decided to assist Liu in creating a series of prints. To the missionary, that is Liu Kuo-sung, prints are his scripture, to be made available for wide admiration and to reflect on his faith in modern ink painting. This statement is recognized by Liu himself, and also strongly supported by Jiang Xingdao, the founder and manager of Xuyuan International Print Centre in Beijing. With great enthusiasm, Jiang has organized a dedicated team of over thirty printers for the project, and together with Loftyart, carefully selected nine of Liu Kuo-sung’s most representative paintings as inspirations for the prints. In examining the unique qualities of each painting, Xuyuan and Loftyart have chosen three types of prints, woodblock, etching, and silkscreen, to fully represent the diverse variety of Liu’s art. The nine paintings themselves, being defining works in Liu’s career as well as modern Chinese art history, have all entered renowned museums or important private collections, such as Sun and Moon: Floating? Sinking? in the British Museum, Wintry Mountains Covered with Snow and Water and Cloud Share the Same Source in the Harvard Art Museums, and Roof of the World in the Asia Art Museum of San Francisco.
Xuyuan’s team of printers have demonstrated considerable knowledge, technical skill, and aesthetic accomplishment in creating Liu Kuo-sung’s prints. As each board is individually carved, etched, or drawn, and later printed with multiple runs, the prints are truly works of art in themselves At the same time, through Liu Kuo-sung’s kind guidance, they remain faithful to their original inspirations. Xuyuan’s manager Jiang Xingdao deeply admires Liu Kuo-sung for his art, as well as his contributions to modern ink painting. As a print specialist, Jiang is determined to use this opportunity to challenge the boundaries of printing in China. For the monumental etching Silvery Woods Amidst Cloudy Mountains, which measures one meter in height and two meters in length, Jiang had the oversized copper plate and acid pool custom made for the project. Etching the plate alone was a lengthy two month process. However, the printed result is unprecedented and phenomenal. Jiang is confident it is the largest etching ever produced in China. Liu was delighted by the vivid textures created by the etching needle and its effective representation of the harsh winter landscape. Moreover, Liu was so pleased with how the colors were rendered on the silkscreen Blue Light on the Ripples, he wholeheartedly told the printers: “this is prettier than my original painting!”
No one would have thought Li Mo-hua’s joking description of her husband as a missionary would become Liu Kuo-sung’s title for the next sixty years. Through Liu Kuo-sung’s selfless dedication and faith in modern ink painting, he has amassed a legion of followers to his cause. Modernism has finally been recognized as a necessary development to ink painting, and Liu’s artworks have received their due attention on the art market. In faithfully representing Liu Kuo-sung’s most defining artworks, and earning his esteem in the process, this series of prints will ultimately become the scripture Liu needs to carry on his lifelong mission of promoting modern ink painting.
Elaine Suyu Liu
Translated by Timothy Chang
1. The Way of Chinese Modern Painting” Literary Star, 1964.
3. Liu Kuo-sung “On Creating and Teaching Ink Painting” Journal of Art Education, 1996.
4. Liu Kuo-sung “21 Century New Visions of Oriental Art” 21 Century New Visions of Visual Art International Symposium, 1999.
5. Liu Kuo-sung “First Individuality, then Quality” Forty Years of Art Teaching, 1999.