Liu Dan has exhibited in museums and galleries across China, Europe and North America and no artist has been more successful in the thriving global market for contemporary Chinese art; yet his personal history sets him apart from this recent resurgence. He was born and grew up in the ancient southern capital, Nanjing, in the heartland of literati culture.
As a child his grandfather looked after him when his parents were working away from home and he received instruction in various aspects of a traditional Confucian education. These included calligraphy, not just the core skill for writing with the brush, but also the foundation of painting. He was 13 when Mao Zedong declared the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76). This was the point when education stopped abruptly for an entire generation of young Chinese people.
Liu Dan spent two years in the Red Guards and a further ten years working in rural Jiangsu. There were occasional opportunities for learning – mostly from books that had been confiscated and discarded by Red Guards. These included translated works of European history and literature and, occasionally, art books. The only images of western art to which Liu Dan had any prolonged access were a set of tiny black-and- white photographs of Renaissance paintings and drawings, copied from a book by a friend and passed around the students’ circle. These he studied minutely, producing copy after copy.
His formal study at the Jiangsu Academy of Traditional Painting began only after the Cultural Revolution, and in the intervening years his artistic training had been along the western models used in the state education system. He thus stands out among his generation for his lifelong facility with two artistic traditions. In 1981 Liu Dan moved from Nanjing to Hawaii, and for more than twenty years lived there and in New York before returning to China in 2005 to settle in Beijing, where he now lives and works.
It was while living in Hawaii that Liu Dan made a conceptual breakthrough in his painting that has characterised and informed his work to this day. Essentially, he observed that rocks, which have always been a key element in landscape paintings, are not stable forms but change with every angle from which they are viewed. Scholars in China have collected ornamental rocks since the Tang dynasty (AD618– 906), and from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) even commissioned portraits of prized examples.
The intricacy of rock forms, particularly when depicted in fine detail, reveals the inorganic objects to be legible as small versions of larger landscape elements, accounting for the fascination they have long held for collectors as ‘worlds in miniature’. For Liu Dan they function, in his words, as ‘stem cells’ – meaning that they can be replicated in infinite variety to represent the natural world.
Liu Dan’s paintings are also distinguished by his painstaking methods and an exacting attention to detail. He uses a very dry brush to make small strokes; often the marks are so thin that the texture of the paper below is evident. As much as this relates to the more extreme practices of literati painting – spare use of both line and ink, and attention to materials – it is also one of the features of his work that removes it from the mainstream of ink painting, and particularly from the ‘New Ink’ movement of the twenty-first century.
Close viewing of his paintings reveals ink in many shades, from deep black to palest grey, with the most thinly painted areas almost resembling a rubbing rather than a painting, for the individual brushstrokes cannot be seen. Like the rock compositions, this absence of line gives his ostensibly traditional works a strikingly new look.
He is similarly meticulous about his materials. In order to replace a favourite antique brush of combined goat and weasel hair he travelled 1,000 km to Wengang in Jiangxi, to the workshop of a master craftsman. The paper he uses is commissioned from papermakers in Anhui province, the area central to the production of artists’ papers since the Tang dynasty and the location of most of the few remaining workshops that adhere to traditional papermaking methods. It is made for him by the only extant papermaking workshop able to produce the sheet lengths of 10 metres that he requires.
Liu Dan opens a new exhibition of his work on 20 October 2016, the Ashmolean Museum Oxford University
The work of one of China’s most revered artists, Liu Dan (b. 1953). He is at the forefront of the generation of painters who have been working in radically new ways in the traditional medium of ink. His paintings are meticulous and finely detailed, and often huge in scale. He is equally interested in Italian drawing of the 14th to 16th centuries as much as their Yuan and Ming dynasty contemporaries and aspects of their work are subsumed in his.
The exhibition will show 19 works by Liu Dan made between 1992 and 2016 together with Old Master drawings by Botticelli, Leonardo and Raphael chosen by the artist.