Couple's passion opens window on China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am

A woman is sewing. She's wearing a head scarf and traditional Chinese blouse, the lapel buttoned at the shoulder. She's pale, intense and contemplative. It's 1944, during the war with Japan and just before the civil war in China. What is she going through? What is she thinking? There's a letter sitting in a basket beside her. Is it from her husband, or her brother, or a soldier?

Pang Xunqin's painting The Letter is one of a number of works on show at London's Asia House. They form a unique display of Chinese art acquired over 65 years by Khoan and Michael Sullivan.

Professor Michael Sullivan is one of the foremost authorities on 20th-century Chinese painting. After studying architecture at Cambridge University, he went to China in the 1940s to work for the International Red Cross, driving medical supplies to hospitals in Free China.

He met his wife, Khoan, in Chongqing a few years later while he was teaching at the West China Union University Museum.

The collection they've amassed is a testament to their lifelong love of Chinese art, and to the friendships they built up with the artists themselves over a number of years, beginning in Sichuan in the mid-40s. Sullivan wrote in 2001, a year before his wife died: 'Khoan and I never set out to be collectors. In fact, it is only very recently that we have begun to consider ourselves as collectors at all - because other people said we were.'

The collection spans two generations, telling a story of social and political change as well as what was going on in the lives of the artists and the people and places they were painting.

'Pang Xunqin, the painter of The Letter, is a very good friend of mine and one of my favourite painters,' Sullivan says.

'His daughter is now a professor at a university in China.'

Another work by Pang is of Khoan, painted in 1945 with oils on plywood. 'Being Chinese - and due to the fact my Chinese wasn't very good - my wife Khoan opened doors for me and built bridges. She spoke a lot of different dialects and that's how we were able to meet so many of these artists,' the professor says. 'We just had friends who gave us artworks including paintings, prints and drawings. The collection now amounts to about 200 items.'

When Japan occupied Beijing and Shanghai, universities and art schools all moved inland to Free China. Sullivan says some refugee artists in Chengdu formed the Modern Art Society which held its first exhibition in 1944 on the campus of West China Union University.

'The Modern Art Society had a variety of artists, some of whom were completely non-political. Others did some powerful satirical pictures - one, painted in 1944, revealed the corruption of society and was hidden in our house for two or three days.

'The artist Ding Cong [known as Xiao Ding] is still alive and living in Beijing today, but in its day it was a very hot item indeed. I was in Beijing last year and I met him again - I hadn't seen him for 61 years and he had a little watercolour paintbox which I had given him in 1946.

'Back in the 1940s, Khoan was able to help some of these struggling artists by selling their paintings for precious American dollars to GIs stationed there - particularly when the American Air Force arrived. We got to know some of the officers quite well and they would buy these artworks for US$50 each which was a lot of money back then.

'Unfortunately, those artists in exile in Free China, while dreaming of going back home when peace returned, were about to suffer both Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.'

The couple left China in 1946 and weren't to return until 1973. 'In the meantime we had been in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and had met artists in those countries who had started the modern art movement there.'

Not all the works on display in London are of Asian people and places. Swans on the Serpentine was painted in London's Hyde Park in 1948 by Zhang Anzhi, but the ink and colour work has a Chinese feel about it. Zhang (1911-90), from Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, studied painting at the Central University (now Nanjing University).

Lin Fengmian's The Yangtze Below Chongqing was bequeathed to the Sullivans in 1960. It shows dramatic, brooding cliffs that dwarf the Yangtze River below. In the foreground, barely visible, are two people - possibly fishermen. Lin was a key figure in the development of modern art in China and was inspired by the work of Vlaminck and Matisse.

Moving forward in time, Village in South China by Huang Yongyu was painted in 1976. It's a colourful piece, with pink flowers, blue sky and whitewashed houses, light pouring from their windows. Mao had died and it was the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, perhaps an indication as to the mood of the artist at the time: it was a new dawn and a new beginning.