Midnight Sun III (Lot 53) presents a summary of Liu Kuo-Sung’s travels to Sweden in 1968. The midnight sun is also known as the perpetual sun, and refers to the astronomical phenomenon of the sun remaining above the horizon for the space of an entire day (Fig. 1), a wonderful astronomical display that can only be seen in far northerly locations. Kuo-Sung was strongly attracted by this theme, with the setting sun hovering as if set to fly off into an imaginary space, the five suns shining their light down on the Earth. The first among the Midnight Sun works he created was also completed in 1969, and later became part of the collection of the Stanford University Art Gallery in California (Fig. 2). Another Midnight Sun work also set a new record at auction in 2013 for the artist of that time by fetching HK$6,280,000. In the four-year period spanning 1969 to 1973, Liu Kuo-Sung created the renowned Space series, the success of which won him the reputation as the most perceptive contemporary artist in America.
Midnight Sun III, with its unique form of four panels, is closely bound to the structural form of traditional Chinese painted, hinged screens. This work also seamlessly relates to the process of his subsequent combinations of images - such as his arrangement of five pictures in the form of a cross - and it further adumbrates his later abstract style. As the sun gradually changes, the implication of time assumes ever greater prominence as the sun evolves into overlapping round shapes, like a multiple exposure (Fig. 3).
The dazzling red appearing in the top part is the predominant tone in this creation, and the five light orange-red suns rise through the cloud wrack in a scene that is incomparably exquisite. Crisp contours, like the planar picture processing pursued by Western modernists, create a haunting visual impression with a meditative idyll. The arc described by the five suns also adds dynamism while infusing rhythm. The rich texture of the mottled earth in the bottom part accentuates the visual level, and the fibrous veins in Liu Kuo-Sung’s paper appear as even more of a feibai effect than the brush strokes alone, with the rich texture breaking through the deductive conventions of absolute planar ink and brush works. This natural texture, so reminiscent of the ice-like pattern of batiks, coordinates with the use of rubbing and chapping, while exhibiting boldness and delicacy. Liu Kuo-Sung also combines an airbrush technique to attain a fine surface colour effect which is sometimes a carefully-planned, bright, sparkling embellishment, while the lines which in some places are softened and in others construct a sense of light and air. At a closer look at the in-between layer, viewers will notice there are delicate gradations in shade, which go through a metamorphosis where clouds intimately inter-coil. (Fig. 4)
When it comes to the major events influencing the 20th century, it is de rigueur to mention the great feat of humanity’s first ascent into space. Liu Kuo-Sung’s Space paintings are a clever combination of such contemporary themes and traditional media, and demonstrate a theme that artists rarely touch upon, as it invites viewers to contemplate the ebb and flow of the universe. More importantly, it explores modern ink painting with a revolutionary, epoch-making significance. His novel interpretation of traditional ink painting injects new techniques, presentations and themes. As Wu Guanzhong once said, Liu Kuo-Sung is, “A Chinese who takes traditional Chinese painting one step forward in the new era, and shows to the Western world the special character and pride of Oriental art and should arouse our attention and excitement.” 1
1 Shao-Jun Lang, Liu Kuo-Sung in Mainland, Taiwan Art Magazine, Issue 18, Taiwan Museum of Art , 1992.