I grew up in a world that was covered in red – the red sun, the red flag, and red scarves.
Ranking among the ultimate paragons of Liu Ye’s oeuvre, the monumental Smoke is the first painting from a trinity of epic crimson-hued horizontal canvases from 2001-2002, the second of which resides in the esteemed M+ Sigg Collection and the third in an eminent private collection after fetching the artist’s auction record in 2013. Unique to the present work is the looming red sun emblazoned upon the centre, edging out all notions of time and space, evoking René Magritte’s celebrated image of Le Banquet and its ambiguous treatment of night and day. There is an ancient rhyme chanted by mariners at sea: “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight”. The concept is an established wisdom; however, in the intoxicating crimson cosmos of Liu Ye’s Smoke, the distinctions between night and day, sunrise and sunset, and fear or euphoria, are rendered moot. Instead, the scorching saturation of fiery colour aspires towards the absolute freedom of reductive abstraction. Emanating a rich alchemy of tonal ranges, the riveting red sky in Smoke evokes a mythic state of genesis, like “the light that bathed the world when heaven and earth first parted”, or equally a threat of apocalyptic tragedy, “like the blood-red afterglow of sunset, carrying associations of calamity” (Zhu Zhu, “Only One Gram”, in Christopher Noe, ed., Liu Ye: Catalogue Raisonne 1991-2015, Germany, 2015, p. 24). The ambiguity is compounded by the cryptically nonchalant expression on the little girl’s face, her piercing yet unrevealing gaze, and finally the faintly foreboding wisp of smoke spiralling from the incongruous cigarette. Instantly commanding in its audaciously provocative colour tone, and progressively enthralling with exquisitely executed detail, Smoke is a magnum opus imbued at once with the timeless poeticism unique to Liu Ye’s art as well as the searing weight of an entire generation’s history.
Born in 1964, Liu Ye grew up in an artistic family: his father wrote children’s fairy tales and his mother was a language teacher. During the Cultural Revolution his parents hid all their books, which Liu Ye found and read in secret, spending quiet hours enthralled by illustrations from foreign lands. At some point the family moved to Qianmen, close to Tiananmen. Liu Ye recalls: “We would play at Tiananmen at dusk. Back then, Tiananmen was all trees, grass, and flowers. There was a dense pine forest. I learned to ride a bicycle and fly kites there” (the artist cited in “Liu Ye in Conversation with Philip Tinari”, in Christopher Noe, ed., Liu Ye: Catalogue Raisonne 1991-2015, Germany, 2015, p. 45). Liu Ye once remarked: “I grew up in a world that was covered in red – the red sun, the red flag, the red scarves” (the artist cited in Zhu Zhu, 2015, ibid, p. 23). Zhu Zhu elaborates: “In a world of red dictatorship, there is no other colour to speak of” (ibid). Importantly, however, the critic clarifies that for Liu Ye, and for the children of his generation, red was less the colour of an authoritarian government than the colour of childhood per se, i.e. “[Red] is the colour we must return to whenever we think of childhood” (ibid). And childhood constitutes a world of its own – one “neither tainted by ideology nor crushed by history, a world that [is] magnificent and eternal” (ibid).
After the Cultural Revolution, Liu Ye enrolled first in the vocational Beijing College of Art and Design in 1980 and then the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing in 1986. At the CAFA, one of his teachers was Zhou Lingzhao, who painted the first portrait of Mao Zedong that hung in front of Tiananmen. Like a lot of artists of his generation, Liu Ye received a strict, orthodox education with a limited exposure to Western art that was nevertheless transformative. His first influences at the time included Paul Klee and René Magritte, whose works he learned about through printed materials. In the watershed year of 1989, Liu Ye was in his third year at the CAFA, but left for Germany at the end of the year where he remained until 1994. Later in the decade, Liu Ye was an artist-in-residence at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam. During his time in Europe, Liu Ye’s influences were diverse, ranging from works from the early Renaissance, Jan van Eyck in particular: “the painting was so small, yet so intense” (ibid), to Johannes Vermeer, Giorgio Morandi, Balthus, Giorgio de Chirico, Piet Mondrian, Klee, and Magritte, amongst many others. Digesting a plethora of styles and techniques, Liu Ye honed his technical capabilities and refined his own unique whimsical surrealist style, one which, as Zhu put it, was uniquely positioned between the Flemish tradition of Stilleven (a world of equipoise and stillness) and Pop. Per Zhu, Liu Ye sensed in the Flemish painters “the appeal of language that transcends temporality and regionalism”; while for him, Pop’s influence “manifested in his appropriation and displacement of art-historical images as readymades, leading over the course of his career to the creation of many works which […] can be viewed as an ongoing, hidden dialogue with the artists he is fond of” (Zhu Zhu, 2015, ibid, p. 17).
Smoke from 2001-2002 is a prime example of Liu Ye’s famed intertextuality, which engages in dialogue not only with other artists but with his past and future works. There is the reference to Magritte’s Le Banquet in the centrally positioned mysterious red disc; hints of classical Romantic skyscapes in the tumultuously blazing sky; as well as traces of the tradition of lush Chinese landscapes in the delicately rendered sfumato treatment of the pine trees. And finally there is our short-haired little heroine which graces many of Liu Ye’s paintings, donning her signature bright green skirt that recalls the green dress of the woman in van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait. Directly contemplating the viewer, the girl’s gaze is intent, thoughtful, cryptic, even plotting; her heart-shaped face rendered in a meticulous precision reminiscent of the Flemish painters’ Stilleben: “the charm of Vermeer, like a jewel in darkness, sent forth its profound and edifying rays” (Zhu Zhu, 2015, ibid, p. 26). The finishing touch is the cigarette and the waft of smoke that gives the work its title. Smoking in art offers a double symbolism: the act is an emblem of mortality, while the waft of smoke presents an allegory for the transience and ephemerality of passing time. In this way, Smoke nods to the 16th and 17th century Dutch vanitas, or even to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s 18th century genre paintings of young children blowing bubbles, contemplating spinning tops, or playing with fragile houses of cards. Here, our cigarette-smoking heroine wields no guns or swords, as in the eponymous works Gun and Sword from the trio of red works, but there remains a potent air of silent yet dramatic narrative, softly ominous yet mystically whimsical.
Created in 2001-2002, Smoke furthermore situates at a pivotal turning point in the artist’s career – one in which he began consciously stripping down his hitherto highly narrative paintings. In his words: “For all of the nineties, I was greatly influenced by Surrealism and metaphysical art movements. From 2000 onward, I have been more interested in Minimalism and abstract art” (ibid, p. 50). The artist continues: “I want to strip away as much of the feeling, narrative, and plot points as much as possible and rely on the foundations of the painting like scale, colour scheme, and composition” (ibid). The present Smoke is the triumphant result of such a shrewd exercise of reduction and paring down – retaining only the most minimal of components, Liu Ye allows the power of form and colour alone to reign absolute, such that the omnipresent hue of red became liberated even from symbolism. Zhu declares: “The colour red in Liu’s painting has attained freedom. […] This red is like a vault of heaven which can contain all echoes relating to redness, and the moment it embraces all of these is precisely when the particular symbolism of that bygone era is cancelled out” (Zhu Zhu, 2015, ibid, p. 24). By condensing his composition, Liu Ye’s flaming paradise resonates beyond an entire nation, echoing beyond history and space, to invoke the timeless and otherworldly realms of reverie, memory, and dreams. Here, Zhu leads us to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote: “Childhood sees the World illustrated, the World with its original colours, its true colours. The great once-upon-a-time (autrefois) which we relive by dreaming in our memories of childhood is precisely the world of the first time” (cited in ibid, p. 23).