The Limits of Snow
signed and dated in Chinese (lower left)
ink and colour with collage on paper
44.5 x 87.2 cm. (17 1/2 x 34 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1968
one seal of the artist
Private Collection, Australia

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Jessica Hsu
Jessica Hsu

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Lot Essay

“The brushes in Chinese painting, are held vertically above the flat paper; crests of ink float and dissolve into the painting's waiting spaces...what the entire painting captures is a kind of metaphysical aura, the flowing spirit and energy of the universe, beyond what our eyes can see. This sense of constant movement, reaching to the utmost edges, is what the Chinese painters searched for all their lives, and is also what abstract painters hope they will achieve.” – Liu Kuo-Sung

Liu Kuo-Sung was born in Shandong in 1932 and moved to Taiwan in his youth. In 1949, he enrolled in the Fine Arts program in Taiwan Normal University, where he was taught by master painters like Chu Teh-Chun and Pu Hsin-Yu. Though familiar with ink painting from childhood, his university training influenced him to focus on painting with oil and other Western media early in his career. Until 1961, when he viewed an exhibition of ancient Chinese paintings at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, he felt truly inspired to once again pick up brush and ink and paint with the media of the Eastern tradition. For the rest of his life, he engaged in intensive experiments with ink painting, re-defining both brush techniques and the ways in it uses paper. Advocating innovations that would modernize ink painting, he employed techniques of his own invention such as geometric collages, stripping selected fibres out of the paper, and water-rubbing techniques, which have made invaluable contributions to the continued development of the Chinese ink tradition.

In the 1960s, having returned to the ink medium, Liu became obsessed with exploring materials in order to discover new visual effects. By chance, he noticed that the paper used in traditional paper lanterns had a large number of heavy fibres, which stood out as numerous winding vein-like patterns, and he immediately placed an order with a manufacturer for a batch of cotton paper that had a great many of these distinctive veins. After applying colour to the paper, he would strip off a certain number of those fibres; the result resembled the 'fei bai' (flying white) seen in traditional calligraphic brushwork. Combined with these methods of treating his materials, Liu Kuo-Sung in the 1960s made bold use of the 'wild cursive' style of calligraphic brushwork in his paintings, as in his Unrestrained (Lot 425). There, the artist's broad, calligraphic lines, highly charged with a sense of movement, meet spreading washes of diluted ink and the white veins of the treated paper, and with just a few strokes of the brush, he sets out an abstract landscape, one that is simple, uncluttered, and spacious, yet full of variations in texture and feel. Liu's broad-brush creative approach here is not unrelated to the influence of Western Abstract Expressionism on his work, though the source of his deft brushwork and his willingness to leave large areas of blank space can clearly be traced to the 'xie yi' (freehand brush work) painting styles of ancient China.

In 1966-67, Liu travelled around the world, and upon returning, found it difficult to forget the grand, beautiful vistas of snowy mountains in Switzerland. He created a series of works on this theme, of which his Untitled (Lot 424) and The Limits of Snow (Lot 426) are representative works. Untitled continues his previous style employing broad brushstrokes, but adds bright colour tonalities that fill the work with a sense of vibrant, rhythmic energy. The Limits of Snow is distinctive in that the structure of the boulders in the foreground is quite clear, while in the background, the artist relies on the paper's pattern of creases and wrinkles to help suggest the indistinct outlines of a broad bank of snow.

By 1972, Liu had begun attempting his 'water-rubbing' technique. This involved dripping ink or pigment into water, letting it disperse along the water's surface, then allowing his paper to contact and absorb the inks, after which he proceeded with other treatments of the picture surface. Unlike traditional Chinese painting, the accidental effects of the water-rubbing technique mean that the actual composition can often be chosen only after the water treatment is finished, so as to shape a matching artistic conception, hence the concept that 'painting is like making moves in a game of chess or wei qi.' Dating from 1973, Penetrating Promontory (Lot 423) is a typical work from Liu's early period of experimentation with this technique. The natural flow of spreading black inks forms the background; several pieces of paper in distinct rock shapes are mounted on top to form a scene of grandeur, of cliffs reaching to the sky.

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