A Surrealist, Abstract Painting from the Subconscious
Li Chun-Shan No. 040
Li Chun-Shan is regarded as a pioneer of Chinese modern painting. His studies took him to Shanghai and Tokyo, two of the centres of the artistic avant-garde at the time. In these places, the seeds were planted for Li Chun-Shan’s later explorations of modern art. In 1931, Li joined the Storm Society, which was the first group of Chinese artists to promote modern art. During his studies in Japan, Li also joined the Tokyo Institute of Avant-Garde Fine Arts, where he often encountered other pioneers such as Kim Whan-ki, the Korean monochromatic painter, and Jiro Yoshihara, the founder of the Japanese Figurative School. Li Chun-Shan studied under famous masters including Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita of the Paris School and the Japanese avant-garde pioneer Togo Seiji. Foujita emphasized the spirituality and originality of painting, and he opposed Academicism and systematic education. Li was deeply inspired by Foujita, whose ideas about spirituality became a central principle of his own teachings. In 1949, following the relocation of the Nationalist Government to Taiwan, Li began to vigorously advocate for modern art. He established his studio on Antung Street in Taipei, where he trained and cultivated many artists of the post-war avant-garde. Rather than simply teaching technique, Li Chun-Shan believed in “spiritual transmission”. He emphasized stimulating the creativity of the individual and passing on the spirit of modern painting. Eventually, he became an important link in the modern development of post-war Asian art, which caught up to the West in the 1960s, and he helped develop some of the signature Asian post-war artistic aesthetics. Hsiao Chin and Li Yuan-Chia, the founders of Movimento Punto, were both members of his studio. From the perspective of history, Li Chun-Shan was not only a master of abstract painting, but also a major figure in the development of post-war Asian art.
Li Chun-Shan once said that his artworks were non-thematic, non-narrative and non-literary visions of an unseen world. His paintings have no clear subject, and often, he simply waited until they were done and then named them with a number. One such painting, No. 040 (Lot 1006), featured in this evening auction, resembles an abstruse dreamscape. The composition is not a deconstruction of images into abstract distortions; rather, these abstract creations come from the artist’s subconscious, a continuation of the Surrealist style that Li began to explore during his advanced studies in Japan. Li was deeply influenced by Freud’s theories of the subconscious, and he combined abstract technique with the spirit of Surrealism in order to create a surrealist, abstract painting in his own distinctive style.
In No. 040, a pure visual space is formed by shapes, colours, lines, and planes. In addition to expressing the spirit of Western Surrealism, the painting also expresses the Eastern philosophy of Yin-Yang. Li Chun-Shan uses black, white, red, and blue to create a body of contrasting colours. A large swath of black forms a base, the upper portion of which is covered with white paint; the two colours both clash and mingle. The cool blue tone of the upper half of the painting also contrasts with the warmer reds of the lower half, forming an intense contrast in terms of colour, line, and texture. Blocks of blue colour form the core of the upper half, the heavy daubs of paint expressing a gyrating, explosive power. The red lines of paint in the lower half were directly applied from the tube to the canvas, giving the tableau an intense dynamism and sense of layering. These two different techniques also embody the Yin and Yang contrast of concavity and convexity; the dense and diverse symphony of the painting expresses an exuberant vitality and powerful self-confidence. The overall composition suggests the possibilities of movement: from within, outwards into limitless space. Li Chun-Shan’s artwork does not lend itself to meticulous literary interpretation. Instead, the artist offers us a poetic, purely visual space.
Li Chun-Shan devoted his life to the modernization of post-war Asian art, and he invested his hopes in a new generation of artists. After his death in 1984, his descendants established the Li Chun-Shan Modern Painting Foundation to continue his legacy. In 1989, the foundation donated its entire collection of Li’s drafts and paintings to the National Taiwan Museum of Arts. Today, very few of his artworks are circulating on the market, and his oil paintings are particularly hard to find, making this evening auction a truly rare opportunity for collectors.