“If the representation of nature were the sole aim of art…then the invention of photography would mean the end of painting…but in fact this has not happened, and painting will become more important than ever…because it reaches beyond representation, painting shall always maintain its own power and its own dominion.”
-Omura Seigai (1867 – 1927) Japanese historian on Chinese Art
Li Keran, a modern Chinese Painting master skilled in landscapes, portraits and calligraphy, learned to paint at a young age, and was influenced by Pan Tianshou, Lin Fengmian, and mentored by Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong. His landscapes, created through spontaneous expression and free sketching, mixed Western techniques of light and shadow into traditional compositions of Chinese painting, successfully creating a completely new and progressive genre for 20th century Chinese painting. Li’s greatest achievement lay in his investigation into the manipulation of light, and his iconic landscape works, where he uses the darkest ink to contrast with the brightest light, created a whole new visuality for Chinese paintings.
Li Keran’s artistic career began to take new form in the beginning of the 1960’s, and the uniqueness of his landscape paintings gave rise to the term ‘Li’s landscapes’ (Fig. 2). He entered a phase of “one extraction and ten smeltings”, upon which he achieved a new visual language through innovative techniques of shading, modelling, composition and expression. In Li Keran’s later years, he achieved a certain artistic prowess which gave his paintings a sense of freedom and naturalism. The artist’s declining health in later years also made him rely more and more on his own natural talents and imagination than on his outdoor sketching activities (Fig. 1). Therefore, during this time, his works shed light on his mind and spirit, and his paintings entered a free and unrestricted stage. Twin Waterfalls was painted by Li Keran in 1988.% It is a magnificent work from his later period (the artist passed away a year later), depicting the Qingyin Pavilion and its surrounding panorama. The inscription on the painting alludes to his earlier trips to the Three Gorges. In 1956, after being appointed as a Chinese paintings professor at the Central Academy of Fine Art, he travelled with Chen Dayu (1912-2001) from Jiangsu to Sichuan and into the Three Gorges (Fig. 3) , in order to sketch and find inspiration from nature, creating over two hundred sketchings, including works depicting Qingyin Pavilion. Compositionally, Twin Waterfalls is characterised by a feeling of wholeness, where the waterfall and paths leading to the waters amidst the dense forest create delight and motion in the serene landscape, resulting in an atmosphere of tranquility and serenity.
Each element of the painting is carefully composed, from the houses to the pavilion, to the bridges and opposing waterfalls, creating a lively and dynamic effect. Waterfalls are the artist’s favoured subject matter, often in straight vertical lines to lead the viewer visually, while utilizesing the “left blank technique”, (liu bai), to create the flowing water in a zig-zag format. Thick and dark ink, along with blue and green pigments are used to create the mountains and forests that adorn the painting, where contrasting hues and tones result in a rich landscape of layered ink. A similar works, created in the same year (Fig. 4), exude similarities in mood and composition, and emphasize Li’s love of that specific view as he captures the powerful ambience of Mount Emei’s Qingyin pavilion and surrounding area.
Twin Waterfalls demonstrates Li’s superb use of heavy ink, as he boldly combines the traditional ink-accumulation method with his original colour-accumulation method in creating depth. The layering of ink and colour to depict the forest give the viewer a unique sense of perspective and depth unique to the artist, revealing his training in both western and traditional methods of landscape painting. Three basic ink tones to Li’s technique-dark, medium and light, create an overall contrast of lighting within the composition as pockets of “breathing space” and light break through the dense vegetation. Here, Li Keran uses parallel lines to lead the viewer to visually follow the rhythm of the painting. As a master of “dense forest and misty trees”, Twin Waterfalls with its restrained yet sublime atmosphere, is a masterpiece of Li Keran’s later style.