Obituary: Liu Haisu

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The Independent Online
Liu Haisu, artist: born Jiangsu province, China 1895; died Shanghai 7 August 1994.

LIU HAISU was a painter who played a leading role in the development of art education in 20th- century China. Growing up at a time when China was looking to Japan and the West for cultural models, Liu put into practice his belief that art education should be available to all through art schools and universities. This marked a radical departure from the traditional system of apprenticeship, which had limited the study of art to the intellectual elite. He was one of a small group of painters instrumental in establishing a system of art education in China based on the organisation and teaching of European art academics and which still provides the model for every art school in China. Liu Haisu was born in 1896. He came from a distinguished literary family from Changzhou, not far from Shanghai. His father had taken part in the unsuccessful Taiping Rebellion around 1850. His mother was a granddaughter of Hong Liangji, a prominent economist, literatus and calligrapher of the Qing period. Influenced by his mother, Haisu become deeply involved in literature, painting and calligraphy at an early age. He studied calligraphy under Kang Youwei, and learnt the techniques of traditional landscape and flower painting from the painters Wu Changshi and Chen Hengke.

At the age of 13 he set out for Shanghai to acquire an education of his own. Three years later with his friends he established the Shanghai College of Graphic Art, the first art college in modern China, which later became the Shanghai College of Fine Arts. He fought hard to establish the practice of drawing from nude female models as in the West. He was bold and often outspoken and became the most vocal art leader of his time. In the 1920s and 1930s he started several art schools and organised important national and international exhibitions. He visited Japan in 1919 and 1923 and made two tours of Europe, from 1929 to 1931 and from 1933 to 1935, to study Western art, to lecture and to hold exhibitions of his work.

The movements in modern art which were led by Liu and others in the 1920s and 1930s were instigated by the educational reformer Cai Yuanpei who set out the theory that art and science as practised in the West should be powerful forces in reshaping the minds of the Chinese people. With his encouragement many painters travelled to Japan and Europe, particularly to Paris. On their return to China they trained a new generation of artists in Western techniques. The important artists who emerged were Lin Fengmian in Hangzhou, who was influenced by Fauvism, Xu Beihong in Nanjing, who adopted French academic painting, and Liu himself, in Shanghai, where he introduced European styles drawn from the Realists, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, especially Van Gogh and Cezanne.

Liu strove to abandon the traditional Chinese habit of learning by copying the compositions and techniques of the old masters, and instead to promote painting through direct observation, personal judgement and a knowledge of formal art theory. Liu maintained his authoritative position as leader of art schools in Shanghai and Nanjing throughout his long life. He wrote many books on Chinese and Western art history and annotated many classical art texts.

As a painter, Liu Haisu was one of a generation of artists who in many different ways combined Western and Chinese techniques as a means of rejuvenating the native tradition. He painted in both Western oils and the Chinese traditional ink and colour on paper (gouache). In his landscape paintings he concentrated on landscape vistas, such as views of the famous Mount Huang (Huangshan) in Auhui province, which he had visited. To a lesser extent he portrayed animals symbolic of the new nationalist spirit of China such as eagles and lions. His works in traditional Chinese style were bold and untrammelled and often made use of brilliant colours.

Liu Haisu was a tall and impressive figure with a kindly manner, who even in his later years conducted interviews with foreign visitors using the fluent French he had learnt more than half a century before while living in France. His paintings have been widely exhibited, and are found in many public and private collections in East Asia and the West. It is to be hoped that a leading art institution in Britain will have the opportunity to present a retrospective of his work in the near future.

(Photograph omitted)