Taking a trip down memory lane
Over 100 of the late Guangdong master Li Yanshan's traditional Chinese paintings of landscapes and birds and flowers will be displayed at the Hong Kong Museum of Art until October 16. Called 'A Passion for Tradition: The Art of Li Yanshan', the exhibition features works that have been loaned by the artist's family.
'A passion for tradition' is a message engraved on one of Li's seals that alludes to Ji Kang's poem 'exalts the virtues by emulating the ancients'. A trip down memory lane for art lovers, the show features six sections that allow viewers to witness Li's metamorphosis as an artist and individual. They are entitled: 'The Guangzhou Years', 'The Teaching Years', 'The Drifting Years', 'Vocabularies from the Past', 'Discourses from the Heart' and 'A Presence to Endure'.
According to Li's friends, the painter lived like a hermit from bygone eras, thanks to his resolution to emulate the ancients. Evoking this spirit of honouring the past, 'A Passion for Tradition: The Art of Li Yanshan' mainly showcases paintings in which he copies and emulates the styles of ancient masters. Li's later works mostly reflect his cocooned life and ambition to be of the same calibre as the past masters he looked up to.
The principal of the Guangzhou Municipal College of Fine Arts and a key member of the Guangdong Chinese Painting Research Society in the 1930s, Li was born in 1898 to an elite family in Guangdong province. Described by his teacher, Lingnan painter Pan He, as the most talented he had taught, Li later became pivotal in the shaping of the Hong Kong and Guangdong art scenes and art education. Thanks to his extensive exposure to traditional paintings, especially the masterpieces from the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, Li reinvented the traditional painting genre.
The late artist Yu Shaosong once said of Li: 'Yanshan's painting has an inherent refinement to it. Reminiscent of Wang Shimin's intensity and Wang Jian's elegance, he is truly a leader among Lingnan painters.'
Tang Hoi-chiu, chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, adds: 'Not only did Li's creations foster the legacy of traditional art, but his knowledge in art and connoisseurship also contributed to the collecting community and preservation of cultural heritage in Guangdong and Hong Kong.
'This year, being the 50th anniversary of Li's passing, the Museum of Art takes this opportunity to pay tribute to this great man and artist with this exhibition.'
The artist's granddaughter, May Lee Pui-pui, says: 'Grandpa can be said to be a very traditional literati painter. Painting and calligraphy were not just the key activities of his artistic life but also a vital means for him to nurture his soul and build up his character.'
The artist himself once said: 'Painting matters for the person behind it and the person is revealed through painting. This is why purifying one's nature is a prerequisite of learning painting. Learning will arrive at nothing if one's nature is not purified to perfection.'
Lee asked the Hong Kong Museum of Art if it would be interested in holding a retrospective exhibition of her grandfather's work. The museum promptly agreed and Lee and her brother researched their grandfather online. They discovered there were websites with Li's biography and that his artistic influence had not wavered over time, which sparked the idea of sharing his paintings with the public. The previous commemorative exhibition of the painter was held at City Hall in 1975, 14 years after Li's death.
When he was studying law at Peking University, Li witnessed the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a major political event in modern Chinese history that transformed his peers Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu into radical painters and Gao Jianfu into an eclectic artist. However, Li fell in love with traditional painting and managed to carve his own path as one of the genre's most prominent painters of his time.
Tang says Li met famous collectors, such as painter Zhang Daqian, which led him to emulate the masterpieces: Copy After Dong Yuan's Mountains and Streams After Snow; Copy After Juran's Landscape in Twilight; Copy after Huang Gongwang's Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains; Copy after Wu Zhen's The glow of Autumnal Dales; Landscape in the Style of Hongren; Copy after Shitao's Visiting Dai Benxiao in Tiaotiao Valley; and Copy after Bada Shanren's Album Leaves of Landscape, Flower and Bird.
From the 1950s, Li led a reclusive life, drawing inspiration from a bygone era. This lifestyle is illustrated in his later paintings.
A Passion for Tradition: The Art of Li Yanshan
Date until October 16
Venue Chinese Fine Art Gallery, 4/F, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
Inquiries 2721 0116 or visit http://hk.art.museum