In the early 1990s, Liu Dan relocated to New York and in 1993 showed his monumental Ink Handscroll at the Gallery at Takashimaya in New York. At the same time, Liu Dan’s travels and experiences abroad provided great opportunities for advancing his admiration for old master drawings and paintings from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. A Bouquet of Roses (1995) (Lot 574) is an earlier dated painting within Liu Dan’s oeuvre of flowers, with several others exhibited at The Chinese Porcelain Company, New York, ‘A Celebration of Flowers: An Exhibition of Floral and Botanical Paintings, Watercolours and Ceramics’. In his striking portraits of flowers Liu Dan simultaneously depicts intense movement and great drama, as evident in Poppy (Lot 514) and Sunflower (Lot 515). While calligraphic inscriptions excerpted from Chinese classical texts accompany many of Liu Dan’s works, Sunflower features an inscription of a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo. The sentiment connecting the Dutch painter and Chinese artist provides an exciting “crossing-over” effect for Liu Dan and adds an unusual dimension to the painting.1
The insertion of calligraphy in a painting is an elegant tradition that Liu Dan emulates in his paintings with his precise kaishu script. The content or faithfulness of the text is not the focus of his selections, but “what interests me,” he states, “is whether the calligraphy fits into the grey tone of the painting and contributes to its overall visual balance.”2
Small Ying Stone (Lot 516) is a monumental painting wherein Liu Dan balances the horizontal portrait of a stone with a vertical inscription. Liu Dan is an ardent admirer of scholar’s rocks yet owns relatively few. The present lot is Liu Dan’s first portrait study of a ying stone in his personal collection. While the present painting is by no means small in scale, its title refers to the original small ying rock, from the Gong Ji Xian collection, which actually fits into the palm of one’s hand. The inscription features excerpts from the historic Suyuan Stone Catalogue compiled by Lin Youlin in the early 17th century during the Ming dynasty. Liu Dan selects passages describing the venerated characteristics of scholar’s stones and attributing them to notable collections or past owners, thus providing a rich history for the present subject by association.
As an intellectual painter, Liu Dan chooses to portray subjects that seem deceptively simple in form, yet upon further inspection, or realization of physical scale, one is awestruck by the levels and layers of detail that he reveals in his painting. He paints slowly and deliberately due to the details and delicacy that each work demands. His frequent return to the same subject is far from a monotonous repeated exercise, but is an exciting and ongoing conversation between the artist and his art, different each time. A close friend of Liu Dan’s and scholar Ah Cheng describes Liu Dan’s works as a contemplation of the mind and search for the universal ideal of the dao. “The pursuit of brushwork perfection in Chinese traditional painting, in essence, can be understood as an open exploration of the connection between mind and dao. [Scholar’s] rocks are considered the quintessential expression of these two concepts.”3 Liu Dan’s observations of things that may not be seen bring an element of uncertainty and surprise to viewing his paintings. His process is to explore the unknown and capture what is revealed to him; therein lies the originality of the artist.
1 Li Xiaoqian, “Interview with Liu Dan,” Liu Dan: Union of Mind and Dao, Suzhou Museum, China, 2013, p. 26-27
3 Ah Cheng, Liu Dan: Union of Mind and Dao, Suzhou Museum, China, 2013, p. 6-7
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