"The appearance of Mondrian's paintings within my own paintings is spiritual. His paintings are so simply conceived with the most basic colours and vertical and horizontal lines. I am also addressing the question of simplicity" Liu Ye
In Dialogue with Mondrian
This past June, a major exhibition was held at the Mondrian House in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, of the work of Liu Ye, China's most renowned contemporary artist. The exhibition offered a retrospective of the artist's comprehensive understanding of art and his aesthetic dialogue with Mondrian. As a youth, Liu Ye studied at the Berlin University of the Arts in Germany, and he has long been influenced by Dutch artists. Reflections of Mondrian's painting style, with its rigorous straight lines and balanced quadrilateral compositions, began to appear in Liu Ye's artwork early in his career, and eventually become an important visual element of his paintings. Completed in 2000, Mondrian in the Afternoon (Lot 1054) is one of a set of three paintings that draw on Mondrian's style of composition and are respectively set in the morning, noon, and afternoon parts of the day. Mondrian at Noon has been collected by the Long Museum in Shanghai, and Mondrian in the Morning remains in the private collection of the artist, demonstrating Liu Ye's particular fondness for these paintings and the importance he attaches to them. Mondrian in the Afternoon is the only painting of the three that is held in a private collection.
Liu Ye once said, "The appearance of Mondrian's paintings within my own paintings is spiritual. His paintings are so simply conceived with the most basic colours and vertical and horizontal lines. I also wish to address the question of simplicity". Indeed, Mondrian's influence on Liu Ye is profound and far-reaching. In Boogie Woogie (self-portrait), a painting from 1992, only the second year of Liu Ye's creative career, we already see the artist's use of Mondrian's painting as a background. Subsequently, Mondrian often reappeared on Liu Ye's canvases, including Self Portrait with Mondrian, which is featured in the current exhibition, “Mondrian and Liu Ye”. But Liu Ye's insertion of Mondrian's paintings into his own tableaux is far from simple. Mondrian's emphasis on visual theories such as balance and geometrical partitioning has permeated Liu Ye's artwork and influenced his post-2000 artistic development. Mondrian in the Afternoon is an outstanding example of this influence. The horizontal delineation of the tableau and the vertical shadows on the right side of the painting form a sense of balance and correspondence. Combined with the girl holding binoculars and the shadow of the hung painting, these elements form a unified harmony and sense of equilibrium. Yellow is also the base tone in Noon and Morning, which were painted in the same year, and the three paintings feature the same motifs: young children and hung paintings. All three paintings possess the same sense of order. Liu Ye's continuous artistic exploration of line, colour, tone, and composition are further evident in his Bamboo series, begun in 2007, as well as his more recent Books series. At the foundation of these paintings lies a more compact, simple, and forceful approach to line and form.
The stunning precision of Liu Ye’s paintings reveals the positive effect of institutional training in drawing he had received as a student, empowering the artist with patience and absolute control on his brush. When his artistic and creative mind is allowed to colour the canvas, a calm mood and serene manner emerge. It is exactly this soothing and peaceful style that contrasts with the intense and dramatic use of colour and shading. Such juxtaposition creates a playful taste of tension and interaction within the overall compositional framework, pinpointing precisely the restlessness and anxiety in life. The undercurrents beneath the seemingly calm surface is actually in parallel with the aesthetic pursuit by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Through rearranging and displacing the three primary colours and lines in space, Mondrian is able to fill the canvas with a sense of fullness and tension, metaphorically alluding to the unpredictability in life.
In 1994, Liu Ye returned from Germany’s Berlin University of the Arts (Hochschule der Kunste Berlin) to China where movements such as Political Pop and Cynical Realism had become the forefront of Chinese contemporary art. Amid the booming economy, Liu Ye deposited his soul in his childhood memories and the realm of fairytales. He paints a unique and diametrically different impression of China with cartoon-like figures, vivid colours in an approachable style. In this way, Liu Ye has remained an artistic pioneer.
In the early nineties, elements of the Cultural Revolution were widely applied to artistic creation; Political Pop arose to become the major trend in Chinese contemporary art. Some Chinese artists ridicule and criticize through their artistic creation, and view the world through an imbedded socio-political lens. At this time, Liu was advancing himself at Germany’s Berlin University of the Arts during the upheaval of the Chinese political past by young artists. Liu, on the other hand, intentionally leaves a distance between his work and society: “The way we were trained has always been ‘art is to reflect society’s critical incidents, render crucial historical themes’…this ideology neglects the individual experience and feelings. It becomes depleted and over-conceptual.” He has also asserted that political influence on art is fundamental and ubiquitous; but avoiding it is also a possible attitude. For Liu Ye, beauty and grotesqueness, good and evil, sadness and happiness are perpetual themes that are of much greater importance than political notions. “My painting basically belongs to my individual life. Childhood for me, was a golden time, many aspects of my painting reflect my childhood imagination and fantasies.”
Childhood fantasy and philosophical setting are the essential qualities that constitute Liu Ye’s work. His affection for fairytales may be attributed to his father, a writer of children’s’ literature. Liu grew up with discovering beneath his bed a large pile of fairy tales, such as Andersen’s Fairy Tales and The Magic Gourd, which eventually would influence the Liu’s choice of media and style. He once said: “The gorgeous illustrations brought to me a refreshing and vibrant universe, which instantly had me enchanted.” As he grew up, he even fell in love with Dick Bruna’s Miffy character and the movies of the Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki, saying that he felt “that they are just as great as Leonardo Da Vinci.”
Apart from influences from his father, Liu Ye is also inspired by young peoples’ graffiti and art, another primary source for his paintings: “I was born as the generation of the Cultural Revolution, when I was young all I painted was jetfighters, canons, warships and sometimes the sun and sunflowers.” For the artist, the purpose of painting is to express the real self. “After all, I think being honest instead of realistic towards art is the most important of it all”.