After graduating from the prestigious Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou Liu Dahong has lived and taught in Shanghai, a city that for decades has lived in the shadow of its previous colonial glory and which, until only very recently, has started to regain some of its former presence. It is within this transformation of Shanghai - combined with the social dislocations, political upheavals and cultural confusion of China's recent history - that Liu creates his work.
Liu's artistic talent developed from an early age. At the age of six, Liu came across a pile of faded New Year's pictures (polychrome woodblock prints traditionally pasted on the walls of homes during Chinese New Year). He was captivated by their bright colours and bold designs and started making tracings of them. His talent was recognized by his parents and they encouraged him further.
Artistic creativity in China started to thrive during the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in 1979. However, while most of Liu Dahong's fellow students participated in the avant-garde movements of 1985 and 1989, Liu abstained, and instead chose his own individual path looking for inspiration in history, human nature and culture.
His paintings reflect his own individual eccentric style: mixing the Chinese folk palette - wherein bright primary colours are set next to gentler pastels - with the colour scheme of Western naturalism. The paint is applied in neat and precise brushstrokes reflecting the fastidious and meticulous nature of the artist.
The main protagonists in his work are a mish-mash of the real and the surreal; commonly portraying notable figureheads from popular history alongside extraordinary imaginary characters. Much of his work is arranged in narrative form, and he is known for presenting a series of related historical events in the form of a synchronous epic panorama. Liu transcends the barriers of time and space, and draws his themes from the past and the present; from China and the West; from religion and the secular world; from mythology and reality; and from literature and history.
A common theme to his oeuvre is the impression that the viewer of the painting is suspended in space - a bird's eye view - perhaps a pun on his given name, Dahong, which means 'swan goose'. This style has a long established tradition in the history of Chinese painting and Liu admits to drawing influence from the long Song dynasty scrolls, The Qingming Festival on the River, by Zhang Zeduan. These scroll paintings, which appear almost in the manner of present day aerial photography, present a highly detailed record of life in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). Liu's work undeniably continues that tradition in portraying his view of Chinese society today.
Close inspection of Liu's work also reveals a number of other influences, including Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Breughel, as well as Chinese woodblock book illustrations, and Chinese New Year prints from Yangliuqing, with their fine detail, bright colours and naïve folk designs. Blending such influences he creates a style that is exclusively his own.
Liu Dahong's synthesis of traditional styles and contemporary subjects, his combination of realistic forms and fantastic visions, gives his paintings a highly symbolic and metaphorical quality, and turns them into profound allegories in which the past and the present are subjected to critical judgment. Liu's paintings also contain extremely subtle ideological messages.
Liu is reluctant to offer the key to the conundrums raised in his paintings; preferring for the observer to interpret them individually. His work demands a commitment of careful scrutiny. To decipher the coded messages in Liu's work and to enjoy his sense of humour and irony, it is necessary to have an understanding of Chinese art and history. It is important to point out that Liu was very much a pioneer in expressing such ideas on canvas and as such, the importance of his work in the history of Chinese contemporary art is paramount.
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