Liu Kang - 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale Hong Kong Saturday, May 25, 2019 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    By descent from the artist to the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    “With the emphasis on the common origin of calligraphy and painting in Chinese art, artists have long regarded both calligraphic and painterly brushstrokes as the very life of their art. Although oil painting has been my practice and study, I have never forgotten this crucial factor.” Liu Kang

    “I used to live in China for some years, which is why I have been able to paint landscapes of Suzhou, Hangzhou, Guilin and Huangshan so effortlessly. Later when I came to live in Southeast Asia, having felt the equatorial sunshine, appreciated the tropical flora, listened to the stains of Rasa Sayang and watched the gracefulness of the Legong dance, my wrist moved with spirit when I painted scenes for Malay kampongs and Balinese temple ceremonies.” Liu Kang

    Coming from the personal collection of the artist’s family, the present lot is an early, rare and striking work from 1933, by the Singaporean modernist painter Liu Kang, whose unrivalled influence in the establishment of the Nanyang style of painting in Singapore is uncontestable. Painted in the very same year that Liu Kang began his professorship for Western art at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, the scene was most likely painted during one of the outdoor excursions that Liu led pupils to, at the famed West Lake in Hangzhou.

    Born in Fujian Province and having spent his formative years in Malaysia, Liu Kang returned from his art studies in Paris to Shanghai when he was 23 years old, and was hired by his mentor and cultural reformer Liu Haisu as an instructor to teach at his alma mater. The Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, the most important private art school in Republican China, at the time was recovering from the Nude Model Incident that almost shut down the school permanently due to its highly controversial life nude sketching classes. Liu found himself at the centre of the Chinese modern art movement, struggling to define modernity through synthesis of Eastern and Western art and culture, which at times were a conflict between progressive and conservative ideals. In the 1930s, Liu Kang’s course had the highest enrollment at the Academy. Being the youngest professor at the Academy and a forward-thinking instructor, Liu Kang presented his students with new techniques and styles, encouraging them to paint en plein air in the manner of the Barbizon school and the Impressionists. Liu Haisu attributed the artist’s rapid success as a teacher to his “wide knowledge of literature, together with his serious and sincere approach to teaching.”

    West Lake represents what Liu laid down as the key principles of his artistic practice: “a sense of ethnicity”, “time”, “place”, and “character”. (Taken from Liu Kang’s essay, “I Am 87” published for the occasion of Liu Kang at 87, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 1996.) He depicts West Lake, one of the most important sources of inspiration for Chinese poets and painters over the centuries, in a manner that converges the colourful liveliness of the Paris school, chiaroscuro and linear perspective techniques of traditional European academic painting, and the dark outlines that recalls Chinese ink painting. Being an admirer of Post-Impressionists such as Cézanne, van Gogh and Matisse, Liu had long believed their works displayed similarities to traditional Chinese painting in the way that they rejected portraying verisimilitude in favour of expressing the painter’s emotions, which can be likened to the xieyi quality in literati art.

    West Lake, with its stylised depiction, poetic brushwork and unpainted areas (liubai), is almost a direct homage to one of the greatest literati painters - the poet-calligrapher-painter polymath Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo), who served as a governor of Hangzhou in the Song dynasty, and whose namesake is on the very structure which this painting depicts – Su Causeway. Through West Lake, we can trace the roots of the cultural reformist movements of China in the first half of the 20th century, and the generation of Chinese artists like Liu Kang who attempted to modernise Chinese literati painting.

    When Liu moved to Malaysia in 1937, and Singapore in 1942, he continued to be known for his artistic enquiry of the relationship between traditions, identities, Southeast Asian regionalism and the search of new artistic languages. He later continued to be credited with numerous contributions to the local arts scene as an arts educator. In 1952, Liu, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng went on a field trip to Bali in search of a visual expression that was uniquely Southeast Asian. Just as he is known for Matisse-like colour blocks and bold outlines, which can be likened to batik and Chinese ink painting, let us recall that his lifelong influences had primarily been founded on a quest to marry and innovate Europe and China from his early days, and finally adapting such diverging stimuli to become a quintessential character of Southeast Asia.

Property from the Liu Kang Family


West Lake

signed and dated 'Kang [in Chinese] 33' lower left
oil on canvas
61 x 75 cm (24 x 29 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1933.

HK$250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for HK$475,000

Contact Specialist
Isaure de Viel Castel
Head of Department, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Day Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale

Hong Kong Auction 26 May 2019