“My richly imaginative childhood and the rational training I received in my youth fundamentally determined my way of thinking. Later in my life, these two aspects would merge. I now prefer to be soberly imaginative.” - Liu Ye
Little Devil and Knight was painted in 1994. At the time, Liu Ye had just completed his education in Berlin. In the year following his graduation, he seized the opportunity to travel across Europe, immersing himself in the cultural traditions of the region. This meticulously executed work is the crystallisation of the artist’s understanding of European art history combined with the deeply rooted Chinese culture within his heart. The angel on horseback in this painting makes no other appearances in the entirety of the artist’s oeuvre. Additionally, this is the first instance where the little “devils” make their debut in Liu Ye’s paintings — wearing long robes and floating hats, they are chimeras of Chinese and Western origin. It is evident that being in a foreign country, Liu Ye was internalising the essence of what he had learned in Europe in order to forge an innovative style that resonates with his own spirit. In this new artistic realm, Liu Ye fluidly traverses Eastern and Western culture — not only does this painting give expression to the artist’s extensive research of European cultural history, the nuanced brushwork also exudes a sensibility and didactic thinking that are unique to Eastern culture.
With carefully calculated dimensions, this work is rigorously composed — lines and planes of colour are painstakingly orchestrated to achieve a level of splendidly layered detail. The sophistication demonstrated in this work is a testament to Liu Ye’s veneration for the Northern Renaissance; “I have always wanted to return to the early Renaissance period”, the artist declared. The three little devils who surround the central rider form a stable triangular composition. On the left, an old man looks out from the window at the young female rider. In turn, she slightly tilts her head and gazes at the lower right corner of the painting. And the three little devils stares straight ahead. These five figures’ criss-crossing lines-of-sight counterbalance each other to convey a sense of tension — quietly expressing both emotions and complex narratives. At the School of Arts & Crafts in Beijing, Liu Ye spent his early years studying blueprint drawing techniques. In an era when computer-aided design had yet to become ubiquitous, precision was a quality that was highly valued in hand-drawings. It is this practical need for precision cultivated as part of his industrial design background that makes any traces of impulsiveness imperceptible in Liu Ye’s work. Every element in this painting, from the simple contours of the Bauhaus architecture in the background to the geometric colour planes that converse with each other, are manifestations of Liu Ye’s engineer-like compositional logic.
Despite the exactitude expressed in the composition, the fairytale narrative in this painting is wildly imaginative and romantic. Liu Ye explained that Surrealism and Metaphysical art have greatly influenced his creative approach. Often the artist would insert imagery in his paintings that pay tribute to Magritte, de Chirico, and Mondrian. By combining reality with fantasy, these paradoxical pastiches celebrate both quietude and absurdity. This dialectic between the real and the imagined were often similarly realised as a hybrid in the Eclecticism movement during the early modernist period. Upon closer examination of the figures in the work, such allusions are even more apparent. Donning a green robe against a golden backdrop, the confident female rider looks like a biblical character from the Middle Ages. Her entourage in long black Chinese robes stand on de Chirico-esque spheres while gazing into the distance with the aid of binoculars. Halos are replaced by Magritte’s bowler hats. Though eerie at first glance, this ensemble turns out to be delightful when all the visual references are deciphered. The left part of the painting opens up to another dimension that challenges the notion of perception of the viewers — a tiny aeroplane glides across the turquoise sky, and underneath it is a little European village. Liu Ye’s masterful use of Surrealistic symbolisms shatters the boundaries of space and time, and the result is an epic drama of extra-dimensional serendipity. The artist best describes this aesthetic himself, “What I want to express is a state of being or feeling that is situated between Realism and Surrealism”.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud said that dreaming is a conversation with oneself, a process of learning about oneself, and it is another life that is closely related to one’s waking life. With his paintbrush, Liu Ye constructs a dreamscape that is detached from the real world. Yet, it never denies the existence of objective reality. The artist boldly unearths his cultural roots, exploring themes buried in his subconsciousness. By disrupting canonical symbolisms used in the long lineage of Western art history, Liu Ye daringly invents a new artistic style that is uniquely his. Little Devil and Knight is undoubtedly a breakthrough that is the culmination of his early experimentations. As such, this work serves as a critical foundation that enables the artist to reach new heights after the turn of the last millennium. Following such unprecedented success, Liu Ye returns home and continues to blaze new trails in the Chinese contemporary art world.