Liu Kang just turned 90 years old. I feel a little like Willard Scott doing his Smuckers thing on the Today Show. And, though he's not quite as old as Willard's friends, the venerable painter and national treasure of Singapore shows every indication of eventually making the century mark. He was born in Fujian Province, China in 1910 where he lived until he was six. It was then his family moved to Muar, Malaysia where his father established himself in the rubber business. At the age of fifteen, an extraordinary art talent already evidencing itself, Kang returned to China to study at the Shanghai College of Fine Arts, then at a neighboring school where he graduated in 1928. With an artist friend (who later became his brother-in-law), Liu Kang set off to study in Paris where he met and was influenced by Matisse and Picasso, as well as the earlier Postimpressionist, Van Gogh and Gauguin. He returned to Shanghai in 1933 where he became a professor of art until the Chinese war with Japan forced him to flee back to Muar in 1937.
But the war followed him. The Japanese captured Malaysia and Kang saw firsthand it's horrors. In 1946, following the surrender, Kang began his "Chop Suey" series. Named for the popular Chinese-American "hash" with no set recipe, its ingredients chosen at the whim of the chef, Kang's work during this period depicts in graphic detail the brutality, and humiliation suffered at the hands of Japanese occupying forces. Scenes of bodily torture, rape, killings, and public defilement of streets and churches witnessed himself, and based upon accounts of others, are displayed in horrific detail. At one point, he narrowly escaped torture and death himself by agreeing to paint a portrait of one of his interrogators. Kang hopes his work will cause the older generation of Japanese to feel shame while revealing such atrocities to the younger generation in hopes such things will never happen again. Today, until July 16, 2000, these works can be seen at the Museum of Tolerance/Simon Wiesenthal Center in Beverly Hills, California. They are not a pretty site.
But just across the same room, making up almost two-thirds of the 144 pieces on display are works from both before and after the war years exhibiting a charming oriental/French quality that has made his work and style unique in the world of art. At first glance, there is the mark of Gauguin, plenty of nudes, deep greens and raw blues, but in studying his images more closely, one sees Impressionist qualities, Renoir in his female figures, Matisse in his patterned interiors, and Van Gogh in his intensely colorful landscapes. His "Nanyang" (south seas) period starting in the 1950s bears no resemblance or relationship to his "Chop Suey" work. They could be by two different artists. Liu Kang is a traditional artist. Never forgetting his teaching days, he advises students to learn the fundamentals, practice basic painting techniques, travel widely, and never cease learning to draw. From someone who, despite the personal ravages of war, has been doing exactly that for most of a century, it's sage advice.