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2024 Spring Auctions > Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art
Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art

Liu Haisu (1896 – 1994)
Lotus by the Willow Bank(Painted in 1982)

Oil on canvas

60 × 72 cm. 23 5/8 × 28 3/8 in.

Signed in Chinese and pinyin, and dated on bottom right
20 Oct 1996, Sotheby’s Taipei Autumn Auction, Lot 14
5 Apr 2010, Sotheby’s Hong Kong Spring Auction, Lot 273
Acquired directly by present important private Asian collector from the above

Traveling the World in Search of Excellence, Trying to Outshine the Sun and Moon
Lotus by the Willow Bank - A Psalm of Life from Liu Haisu

"I use colours like raging fire to forge my path and express the purity of my character, employing the strength of will and strong sentiment to vie with the sun."
——Liu Haisu

Artist Liu Haisu has been called a "modern art movement pioneer," "the founder of modern art education". He founded a new school of modern art; and at the age of 17, he established the first formal art school in China – Shanghai Art School (later renamed Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts). And at the age of 23, Liu established the Chinese new art group "Heavenly Horse society." In 1931, he held a solo exhibition in Paris, France and in 1934 his touring Chinese Modern Painting Exhibition, travelled across Europe introducing the wider world to Chinese art. Indeed, the artist was responsible for many firsts in Chinese modern art, including pioneering efforts to introduce nude models. As such, Liu’s rich and colourful brushwork made an indelible mark in the history of Chinese modern art.

Burning Flames of Inner Passion, Imbued with Flowing Clouds and Water

Liu Haisu’s life spanned most of the 20th century (1898-1994) and in that period he became well versed in both Eastern and Western learning, combining ancient and modern elements in his art, while making important contributions in the fields of oil painting, Chinese painting, calligraphy, poetry and art theory. Moreover, the artist’s exploration of "landscapes" as a motif can be traced back to the 1920s, at a time when Liu was very much focused on oil painting. From 1919, whether visiting Japan, copying works at the Louvre in Paris, or influenced by the Impressionist School, he yearned for the "burning flames of inner passion" seen in the rebellious spirit of Vincent van Gogh. Liu tirelessly travelled the world and his paintings from real life showcased his reflections on external light, colour and shapes. After experiencing the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, in his later years, the artist refocused on art and imbued his oil paintings with the freehand spirit of Chinese painting, ultimately evolving into his ambitious and unrestrained iconic painting style in later life.

The work being auction is titled Lotus by the Willow Bank, was completed in 1982 and is an important work from Liu Haisu’s later years, during which he received the "Italian National Art Academy Gold Medal" in his 70th year as an artist. Despite his advanced age, Liu still cherished high aspirations. In the same year, he traveled across China, visiting Fuzhou, Xiamen, Zhuhai, Guiyang, Huangshan in Anhui Province and Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province, where he painted natural scenery. It was this experience that led to the creation of Lotus by the Willow Bank which serves as a testament to the artist’s ability to scale new artistic heights even at such an advanced age. The fresh elegance of the work is also imbued with a heroic and flourishing passion.

Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard, Classic West Lake Themed Work

A review of paintings by Liu Haisu during his career shows that most had a landscape or architecture motif, with very few focused on flowers. Textual research indicates that he produced fewer than 20 still life paintings of flowers, with only seven paintings of landscapes and flowers. One of these is Lotus by the Willow Bank, which combines flowers, landscape scenery and cultural buildings. The rich form of this work showcases something particularly rare. In this painting Liu depicts "Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard," one of the 10 places of interest at the West Lake in Hangzhou. When summer arrives, the banks of the West Lake are bedecked with willow trees, with shimmering water, towering lotus flowers and their ubiquitous fragrance. This is the scene Liu Haisu paints, though his detailed depiction of "Guozhuang Garden" on the bank opposite the lotus pond is the visual focus of the piece. The flower-shaped round entrance to the park and its auspicious cloud shaped windows showcase the exquisite refinement of southern Chinese gardens, while the upturned cornice provides a sense of flight momentum, fully highlighting the magnificent solemnity of the cultural landscape. This is also a perfect example of the way in which Liu blends the elegant rhythms of ancient buildings with the freshness and joy of natural landscapes. It is an important example of how the artist created an oil painting imbued with Chinese features.

Throughout his artistic career Liu Haisu painted scenes from the West Lake on several occasions, including Twilight on the West Lake in 1925, Purple Cloud Cave on the West Lake in 1937, as well as West Lake Jade Belt Bridge and Foothills of Dingjia Mountain on the West Lake, the last two being part of the Liu Haisu Art Museum collection. The artist’s relationship with the West Lake can be traced back to his early days at Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts when he visited the area to paint from real life. At that time, every Spring and Autumn the principal or department dean of the school took groups of students to Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing and other places to paint. As principal, Liu headed such visits to the West Lake on multiple occasions from 1918-1920 and it became an extremely important theme in his oil paintings as well as a key aesthetic motif. Completed in the late 1980s, Lotus by the Willow Bank is a perfect synthesis of the artist’s life-long passion for the West Lake.

Heart Wandering through Nature, Freeing Colour and Form

Liu Haisu’s oil paintings are often reflective of his personal character in their bold and distinctive nature, while his use of colour is imbued with the style of the post-modernist and fauvist schools, though the overall picture gives viewers a sense of comfort and lack of inhibition. Such work benefited from the employment of the calligraphic nature of Chinese painting lines with "lines" replacing coloured blocks. This created inadvertent blank spaces between different lines, which was another feature of the artist’s painting style. As we see in Lotus by the Willow Bank, the lotus leaves linked together in the lake display extremely straightforward brushwork. However, in terms of outline, Liu first depicts shapes that resemble plates, palm-leaf fans or a swirling skirt dancing, followed by the brisk and lively addition of several coloured strokes, complemented by the leaving of blank spaces. Several lotus flowers are painted with a paused calligraphic stroke and whether it is the early sprouting of the lotus flowers or swaying in the wind, expressing the verve of "a lotus rising out of clear water; natural and without embellishment." This also encompasses Liu’s noble and unsullied aspiration to "grow out of mud, pure and untainted."

Moreover, the main body of the work exceeds all expectations in the way it adopts clear and bright yellow and green as its main tones, in depicing the lakeside, underwater, the lake, heaven and earth. On both sides of the entrance, the willow trees do not gently dip into the water as it is commonly depicted, but are rather towering vigorously like the cypress trees painted by van Gogh, bringing viewers a sense of vitality. As part of this, Liu Haisu fully utilizes his ability to combine Chinese brushstroke and the Impressionist use of colour, to skillfully apply the colours from orange-yellow and light-yellow at the center of the painting, to dark green and emerald green, with a few dispersed strokes of black-green that gradually spread, emanating outwards as the pure colours of life.

Moreover, the indistinct reflections of the willow trees are seen in the ripples on the West Lake, using colour blending method to highlight changes of the water from light and shallow to deep and thick from far to near. In the distance, we see indistinct mountain scenery and swirling clouds, with the rippling water of the deep lotus pond in the foreground. At the same time, the boat on the lake is swaying in the waves, connecting the sky, land, and the lake harmoniously.

Life Passion in an Eternal Moment

"I often see momentarily flowing lines and brilliant colours, which constantly make my heart leap, and I feel as if the blood is about to burst forth from my body, and sometimes in an instant I use colours or lines to express that feeling". As Liu Haisu said from the heart that he spent his life on the pursuit of "artistic expression." Even in his 70s, he continued to collect styles from around the world as part of his desire to capture and express eternal moments in life throughout his 80-year-long artistic career.

Price estimate:
HKD: 1,600,000 – 2,500,000
USD: 204,300 - 319,300

Auction Result:
HKD: --



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