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Liu Dan - Biography and Legacy

Chinese Painter

Born: 1953 - Nanjing, Jiangsu, China

Biography of Liu Dan


Liu Dan was born in 1953 in regional capital city of Nanjing, literally translating to the "Southern Capital," in the Jiangsu province of China. Liu's paternal ancestors were part of the wealthy scholar-official class during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The family later fell from their elevated position during the 19th century when the artist's great grandfather, who became addicted to opium, wasted the family's fortune and lost their standing in the Imperial court. Liu grew up with his parents, both teachers, three siblings, and his grandfather who instilled in the young boy a respect for China's cultural past, even while this legacy was actively suppressed in the socialist schools Liu attended.

The teachings of Liu's grandfather would have a profound influence on the artist throughout his life. Together, during his childhood, they studied the Confucian classics, poetry and the art of calligraphy, among other classical studies considered essential components of the classic literati, or wenren, education. Although disrupted by his early experiences during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76), Liu would ultimately find his way back to these early studies. It was during the revolution that he first encountered Renaissance paintings and drawings by the Old Masters that would play a large role in his mature artistic style.

The city of Nanjing, where Liu grew up, also contributed to his early appreciation of art. It holds a long artistic tradition, and is the birthplace of many highly respected artists in China, including Dong Qichang, known both for his artistic skills and his influential theories of Chinese art history and Xu Beihong, considered to be one of the founders of China's modern movement.

Education and Early Training

In 1966, Chairman Mao reasserted his power through a series of strategic campaigns collectively known as the Cultural Revolution. Inculcated into the militant Red Guard movement in Nanjing, Liu endured the re-education programs meant to break the individual's connection to the past. As Asian art scholar and curator Alexandra Munroe explains, "The mission of China's mass student youth, a mobilization of millions of boys and girls in a fanatic cult of [Chairman] Mao as God, was to carry out the revolution's battle cry to 'Destroy the Four Olds,' an attack against old thinking, old culture, old customs, and old habits." It was an attempt to destroy tradition, knowledge, religious faith and even the written language as Chairman Mao favored the simplification of Chinese characters, which was to be followed by complete eradication of the traditional ideographic Chinese script. In 1968, Liu was one of hundreds of privileged teenagers sent to rural agricultural communes to be re-educated by working with the peasants.

During this tumultuous period, burning books and destroying libraries, was a common tactic used to suppress knowledge of history and past traditions. Despite this, one of his colleagues managed to photograph a book on European classical painting, Liu used these pictures to continue his studies, copying classic paintings in the dark, and further training his eye and imagination. By the age of nineteen, he already accurately sketched and copied various Renaissance masterpieces. Despite his circumstances, Liu continued using the Chinese brush and ink while also focusing on Classical European art, continuing a love affair that would not subside for many years to come. He also salvaged books, managing to become acquainted with Chinese and European literature, philosophy, and aesthetics. Liu admits that this background helped shape him into an artist; either through an emphasis on patience, which for him, is the most important element of healing and a fundamental aspect of his art, or as an expression of "personal trauma - that which he calls his generation's 'mental disease,'" as explained by Munroe.

Liu initially received attention for his artistic skills during these years of labor. Munroe describes, "he was occasionally 'loaned' by the commune to the Jiangsu Provincial Museum for various art restoration projects." As he contemplated his future, Liu initially leaned toward the realist aesthetic, but upon meeting the famous guohua painter, Ya Ming in the early 1970s, he revived the skills of his early calligraphy lessons with his grandfather and devoted his attention to ink painting. During this period, guohua, 'native' or Chinese painting, was a broad term, encompassing all work created in the traditional ink on silk or paper style, as opposed to xihua, or Western painting. Upon seeing Liu's work, the older artist took him in as his studio assistant and apprentice. With Ya Ming's assistance, Liu studied at the Jiangsu Academy of Chinese Painting in Hangzhou from 1978 to 1981, which provided the foundation for his later art. Ya Ming, who also served as Vice President of the academy, continued to act as a close friend and mentor to Liu during this time, including a two-month trip to study the ancient Buddhist cave paintings of Dunhuang in 1979.

Liu often claims that studying Renaissance art was "like love at first sight" whereas studying Chinese painting was "like meeting an old friend for the first time," emphasizing the profound affection he felt for both these subjects. Although for centuries, ink painting was considered among the highest forms of art, practiced by both professional court artists and scholar-officials, in the early-20th century cultural reformers tied this artistic legacy to what they considered the social ills of an elitist Imperial past. This rejection of China's cultural legacy began after the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), continuing through and beyond the Cultural Revolution when Western artistic styles grew increasingly dominant. "In the early 1900s, the urgency to modernize and reform China's decaying institutions prompted some artists and liberal intellectuals to criticize the reactionary and anti-populist values of traditional Chinese painting," explains Munroe, who also describes Liu's "choice of a classical Chinese medium may be viewed as politically charged." However, by the later 20th century, traditional Chinese painting was not among the creative outlets of the leading avant-garde artists, who instead often turned to most overtly Western or conceptual means of art making. At the academy, Liu's artistic skills were instantly recognized and he soon began to be considered a star of contemporary Chinese painting. During these academic years, Liu Dan also became part of an underground independent youth literary and arts movement that sustained democracy, independence, individualism, and an internationalization of art, especially the works of Andy Warhol and the Dadaists, such as Marcel Duchamp, who were still largely unknown in China.

Mature Period

In 1981, he met Elizabeth Wichmann, a well-known American scholar and theater artist working on her doctoral dissertation in China. Through her studies, Elizabeth traveled to Nanjing to perform the title role in a famous play and become the first non-Chinese to perform the Chinese operatic style of jingju in the People's Republic of China. The couple married in 1981, and soon thereafter moved to Honolulu, where Elizabeth taught at the University of Hawaii. During this time, Liu worked on commissioned portraits and landscape paintings inspired by views of the Haleakala volcano.

His early years in Hawaii were a time of artistic experimentation. Free from the political restraints he had previously encountered, the freedom offered its own dilemma. "Here in America," he exclaimed, "you have to create your own revolution." Through his early portraits and landscapes he refined his skills, but still sought to resolve the dissonance between his major artistic influences at first combining Western naturalism with the calligraphic traditions of ink painting. The years spent at the Jiangsu Academy had taught him a wide range of techniques that he now sought to integrate into something new, beyond the "well-traveled routes of synthesis and combination." He explains, "I had serious training of painting styles from different historical periods. If you ask me to do Ni Zan or Wang Meng style, I can still do a visual demonstration. It is in my blood. But to have all this training is not enough to become an artist. You have to add a new page to history; otherwise you are not making a contribution."

Within a few years of moving to Hawaii, Liu met many connoisseurs and scholars of Asian art who encouraged and collaborated with the artist on his explorations. Among those with whom he developed friendships were expatriate Kyoto-based art collector David Kidd, his partner Yasuyoshi Morimoto, and London-based art dealer Hugh Moss, each of whom encouraged the artist to further develop his traditional approach to art. Liu would later visit Moss in the early 1990s, who described how the artist would discover the first "stone of his dreams" during this visit. Moss relates that he had not fully moved when Liu came to visit, and after using a large, unpacked crate as a makeshift coffee table for the duration of his visit, Liu's curiosity was peeked as he was preparing to leave. When told that the crate contained a "strange stone bought in Taiwan a few months earlier, Liu "exclaimed that he loved old stones, and we should unpack it immediately so he could see it, laughing that he had been drinking his tea off the crate for several weeks." Moss continues, "We opened it immediately and he was astonished... saying it was the stone of his dreams, and the finest he had ever seen. So I cut my love for it and gave it to him as a present." The favor was generously returned, as Liu made numerous paintings of the stone, which Liu named Tianlai-shi (Heavenly Sound Stone) as gifts to Moss, including a series of "five views" for his 50th birthday.

Such paintings of stones would secure an important position in the artist's oeuvre, painted with astonishing precision while exploring the spiritual associations. Chinese scholar Ah Cheng describes, "Liu Dan's observations of things that may not be seen bring an element of uncertainty and surprise to viewing his painting. His process is to explore the unknown and capture what is revealed to him." In his catalogue essay for the 2016 exhibition, Ink Unbound: Paintings by Liu Dan at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, curator Dr. Stephen Little recalls after meeting the artists in Hawaii in the late 1980s, "It was a revelation (and a rare pleasure) to look at traditional Chinese paintings with him in the Honolulu Academy of Arts storerooms, particularly such works as Wen Zhengming's masterpiece The Seven Junipers and Wu Bin's Landscape. Later, comparisons would be made between Wu Bin's famous painting Ten Views of a Lingbi Stone to Liu's works on a similar such stone."

In 1987, Liu Dan created what many consider his break through work, titled Aceldama, consisting of multiple hanging scrolls that collectively depict the biblical lands, also known as the 'field of blood,' which Judas purchased with the 30 pieces of silver he obtained for betraying Christ. While six of the seven scrolls are of uniform size, conforming to the traditional placement of such works, one scroll conceptually breaks with expectations of the medium as it unfurls on to the ground and rolls across the floor into the viewer's space. He follows this work with the equally monumental Ink Handscroll acquired by the San Diego Museum of Art, capturing the artist's anguish at the events in Tiananmen Square. After a decade of seemingly unprecedented expansion of international contemporary art during the 1980s, the forward momentum came to a crashing halt. Munroe describes how the artist was "involved like thousands of other overseas Chinese in organizing support and relief for the families of pro-democracy leaders, many of whom were imprisoned or in hiding." Adding Liu's own recollection, that "When June 4th happened, something connective broke. I felt anger and darkness for the tragedy of China, and for my own life situation."

In 1992, the artist moved to New York where he was one of many important expatriate Chinese artists, including Ai Weiwei, living in the city. The following year, was the subject of a show at The Gallery at Takashimaya in New York, Alternative Visions was the inaugural exhibition of the Gallery at Takashimaya, New York, co-curated by Alexander Munroe (for Liu Dan) and Tadayasu Sakai (for Hiromitsu Morimoto). Munroe introduced Liu's ink paintings to New York audiences, in what is considered one of the first exhibitions, as described by Munroe in the exhibition catalogue, "to open the field of Chinese painting to contemporary experimentation among the post-Liberation generation linking classical and modern aesthetics, medium and techniques." Here, Robert Mowry, curator of Chinese art for Harvard's art museums would discover Liu's work and include him in multiple exhibitions at the university. Over the next decade, Liu was featured in solo exhibitions in America and Germany, in addition to numerous group shows including notable academic galleries such as the Art Institute in Chicago, Yale, and Princeton.

Liu is known to always dress immaculately in tailored dark clothes with his grey hair worn in a long ponytail. Journalist Susan Moore, describes him as an "understated dandy" and art critic Michele Lim, claims that he is a man "of studied elegance and a master of detail" making it seem that he "belongs to the same club as Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire in his ability to elicit the characterization of dandyism, as an aesthetic practice."

After living in New York for 14 years and showing his work internationally, Liu Dan returned to China in 2006 and settled in Beijing. Encouraged by the relaxation of artistic restrictions, as China sought to lure back expatriate artists who had grown famous in the preceding decades, Liu was one of several artists then living abroad who chose to return. Liu describes Beijing as providing the artist with the sustenance he requires for both his art and his mind, such as being the only city known to manufacture the famous xuan paper, which can absorb up to 25 layers of ink for his monumentally scaled works. In his later career, his passion for learning remains unabated, as he stated in 2010: "Beijing allows me to maintain my method of painting. There is opportunity for me to further my study and research in Chinese philosophy, literature, and Chinese artistic heritage."

The Legacy of Liu Dan

One of China's leading contemporary artists, Liu is considered a forerunner in the 21-century revival of traditional painting, sometimes referred to as "New Ink Art." As such, parallels can be drawn between Liu Dan and other leading contemporary Chinese artists who incorporate traditional media and subjects in their art. Among them is the artist and influential scholar Pan Gongkai, who has held leading positions at the top two art academies in China, and has represented China in international art exhibitions such as the Venice Biennial in 2011. Although Pan Gongkai is best known for his video installations that critique the notion of Western influence on Chinese Art, Liu looks to overcome these differences through, in Munroe's words, "a new level of stylistic integration and a new concept of self-expression that would take the tradition forward." Similarities can also be drawn between Liu's Dictionary with contemporary artist Xu Bing's Book from the Sky (1998-91). The dictionary provides what Liu described as ideological-free definitions, while in Xu Bing's installation an entire room is filled with scrolls and open books written with 4000 characters literally invented by the artist that held no actual meaning. Although taking opposite points of entry, each artist critiques the use revolution-era propaganda found in language, and challenges the viewer to ponder the true meaning of the written word.

Liu's contribution to contemporary aesthetics is a revival of classical traditions of art. "It is not about surpassing the masters who preceded us but more about opening new artistic vistas," he said in a 2010 interview with Asia Art Archive. "In continuing to describe his artistic goals, he also spoke of the lessons he hoped to impart: "I am not interested in serving any potentially ideological purpose. I only believe in the integrity of art. I will continue encouraging younger generations in China to study Chinese artistic traditions and restore their connection with the past because this connection has been broken too long. And of course, I will encourage them to learn from Western masters, to further broaden their artistic vision."

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Molly Enholm

"Liu Dan Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Molly Enholm
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First published on 12 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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