When renowned Hong Kong ink painter Lui Shou-kwan held private lessons in the late 1960s, they were always full. But he’d leave his door open so anyone who couldn’t get a spot—or didn’t have the money to pay—could still listen in. Such was Lui’s charm. Born in Guangzhou, he moved to Hong Kong in 1948, where he painted by night and worked as an inspector for the Hongkong and Yaumatei Ferry Company by day. Within two decades, he had become spiritual leader of the New Ink Painting Movement in Hong Kong. The artist died relatively young, at the age of 56 in 1975, but left behind an extensive body of works, including two of his most famous series of Hong Kong landscapes and Zen paintings.
Lui’s job as a ferry inspector brought him to different outlying islands, many of which would later appear in his paintings. His time at the ferry company was pivotal in building his character, according to Josh Yiu, director of the Art Museum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It was a tough life for him,” says Yiu. “He had to provide for four kids. In many of his writings, he spoke of the difficulty of earning a living while pursuing art on a full-time basis – how he had to stay up until the wee hours of the morning. It was a tough life, but I think it also made him realise how valuable work was – that he had to make use of whatever time he had to paint.”
The artist liked to recount his dream of an encounter with a monk. In his dream, Lui asked a monk if he could devote himself completely to the Buddhist faith, as he could no longer deal with the burdens of life. “Do you really think the life of a monk is easy?” the monk retorted.
The son of a painter and Chinese antiques shop owner, Lui’s upbringing had a huge impact on his artistic development. His father taught him calligraphy when he was young. He was also a keen student of Chinese literature and philosophy. Even when he was painting with ever freer and more abstract strokes in his later years, his works were always “rooted in Chinese calligraphy,” says artist Chui Tze-hung, who began his career as one of the aspiring painters peering through Lui’s open studio door.
As time went on, Lui came into contact with American and European art catalogues, which were touting abstract expressionist painters including Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. Lui was drawn to the abstract expressionists’ rejection of stylistic conventions and idiosyncratic expressions, and he applied the same industriousness to acquiring artistic knowledge as he did to provide for his family. Lui eventually began to formulate his own ideas of Chinese ink paintings, which led to the New Ink Movement.
Whereas traditional Chinese art emphasises a painter’s ability to copy their master’s works, Lui believed that everyone should develop their own unique styles. Traditional painters commonly categorised their art as focusing on flowers or saan1 seoi2 (山水, literally “mountain water,” paintings that depict the natural scenery), Lui did away with these, arguing that ink painting should be a means to express oneself.
“It’s quite difficult to fully understand Lui Shou-kwan’s paintings,” says Chui. “But he always said, first, your art needs to express you as an individual. Second, your art needs to have a sense of contemporaneity. Third, it needs to have a sense of the locale.”
These values are embodied in Lui’s Hong Kong landscapes, some of which are on display in a new exhibition at Alisan Fine Arts. These paintings marked the evolution of his work from traditional landscapes towards something more abstract. In some, you can still see trees and junks, but it’s as if they are in the process of being reduced to scatters of lines and dots. As a viewer, your focus shifts from the landscape to the strokes, and the lightness or heaviness of the ink. In others, such as “Cape d’Aguilar of Lei Yue Mun,” there is a sense of grandeur to the works, as they’re simultaneously grounded in Hong Kong while also taking flight.
Lui may have integrated his impressions of the ancient Chinese paintings he’d copied in his early years into his Hong Kong landscapes. And it was Lui’s distillation of what he saw and felt that touched viewers not only in Hong Kong, but also in the UK, when his works were first exhibited there in the 1970 and 80s. “He’s inspired by his own abode and is able to convey it in a way that people who might have never set foot in Hong Kong found his vision compelling,” says Yiu.
Lui further developed his individual expression in his Zen paintings. They may still be landscapes, but here, fields become a bunch of squiggly lines, a river is transformed into a broad splash of ink, and the lotus—a common theme in Chinese paintings and a symbol of purity of body and mind—into a red dot. Another exhibition, When Form Matters: Following the Path of Lui Shou Kwan to Zen Paintings, which is currently being staged at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in collaboration with the Chinese University Art Museum, spotlights the evolution of Lui’s practice.
“One of the things we notice is a lot of people don’t understand where Lui was coming from,” says the exhibition’s curator, Leona Yu. “Oftentimes, they’d look at a Zen painting and think, I could also paint this. We wanted to show: how did Lui Shou-kwan get to this moment of Zen painting.”
By pairing his Zen paintings with works including his Hong Kong landscapes, the exhibition aims to illustrate that Lui always strived to present his truest self in his paintings – and as he became more enlightened about himself and his art, the less reliant he became on literal forms. As a Chinese proverb proclaims, man and nature are one (tin1 jan4 hap6 jat1 天人合一).
Lui’s Zen paintings are now commonly regarded as the pinnacle of his career. “Lui Shou-kwan died quite young. I can’t help but think what he would have gone on to paint if he’d lived,” says Yu wistfully. But his legacy lives on in his students, including Kan Tai-keung, who started to study painting with Lui in 1967. Now a prominent artist and designer, he was working full-time at a department store but still insisted on attending Lui’s classes four times a week. “It was crazy times but I just had this immense thirst for knowledge,” says Kan.
Lui’s teaching method appeared to combine the best of Eastern and Western worlds – on one hand emphasising the humility valued by traditional Chinese painters, on the other encouraging the individual expression revered by abstract expressionists. “Lui encouraged us to copy traditional Chinese paintings, but unlike other Chinese ink masters, not of his own work. He always said, you need to copy and learn from as many masters as possible. Only then could you begin to forge your own ideas and expressions,” says Kan. “He wasn’t as concerned about your technique as he was about whether you could express yourself through your art in a truthful manner.”
Indeed, none of the works by Lui’s students are alike. What unifies them is their unabashed experimentation with strokes, colours and composition. At When Form Matters, works by students including Chui, Kan, Irene Chou, Wucius Wong and Leung Kui-ting are on display alongside Lui’s works. Despite being Lui’s students, their art has completely different creative expressions. “I think the greatest teachers are those who instil this idea in their students that they should think and create independently,” says Yu.
Chui confesses that he didn’t like Lui at first; he thought he was “too cynical.” But soon came to appreciate Lui’s ability to think critically about his vision for the future of Chinese paintings. “He knows what he likes, what he doesn’t like,” he says. “He won’t mince his words for stuff he doesn’t like.” He enjoyed Lui’s lectures, but particularly their pre-class cha chaan teng conversations. “I’d meet [Lui] with other classmates at 4:30pm, right before our 6pm class,” he says. “I loved chatting with him about art, about life. He liked to use storytelling as a way of asking questions, and of provoking us to think, which I felt was very much in the tradition of ancient Chinese philosophers.” Lui was critical but always supportive of his students. Once, after a visit to an exhibition in the early 1970s, Lui pulled Kan aside and gave him a Chinese handscroll, asking him to paint it. “I didn’t realise how valuable it was until I opened it,” recalls Kan. “I don’t remember exactly who painted it, or when, but I think it must have been from the Qing Dynasty. I was quite touched. In fact, I was so scared I’d somehow ruin the handscroll, so I painted it quickly and returned it to Lui.” Lui’s comment, when he saw the work: “He said that I’d become a great artist,” says Kan, still slightly abashed after all these years.
Lui disliked telling his students what to think or paint, but he gifted his students with something far more precious: the tools to find their own path. “He told me that you have to first seek out the great masters in history and learn from [them]. Then to observe, then learn from nature. And finally, look within yourself – what does your heart tell you? And how could you translate that as authentically as possible on the canvas?” This advice has stayed with Kan all these years.
Lui Shou-kwan: Hong Kong Landscapes runs at Alisan Fine Arts until March 12, 2022. When Form Matters: Following the Path of Lui Shou Kwan to Zen Paintings runs at the Hong Kong Museum of Art until April 10, 2022. Please check their website for latest sanitary related opening hours.