M+ began working on the personal archive of Lui Shou-kwan (1919–1975) in late 2018. An influential ink painter, critic, writer, and educator, Lui is often regarded as the doyen of the New Ink movement in Hong Kong. He perpetuated the heritage of Chinese ink painting and transformed it into a contemporary art form rooted in tradition that resonated on the world stage.
Assembled and generously donated by the artist’s family, the Lui Shou-kwan Archive contains over 2,000 items from the 1930s to the 2010s. Spanning notebooks, sketchbooks, scrapbooks, manuscripts, correspondence, exhibition catalogues, photographs, audiotapes, and painting instruments, the archive is wide-ranging and covers Lui’s many activities.
A particularly interesting aspect of Lui’s life to emerge from the materials is his relationship with the art groups that operated in Hong Kong from the 1950s to the 1970s. In 1948, Lui moved from his hometown in Guangzhou to Hong Kong, where he resided for the second half of his life. Throughout his career, he was involved in several art groups in various capacities and was one of the few key figures who connected these diverse artistic networks. Materials from the Lui Shou-kwan Archive provide a more vivid understanding of these networks and groups and how their formation and dissolution indicated shifting cultural trends and reflected the historical developments of art in Hong Kong.
Art Finds a Home in Hong Kong
In the late 1940s, Hong Kong was a safe harbour for mainland intellectuals and artists who fled the unrest and instability caused by the Chinese Civil War. Many settled in Hong Kong or used it as a temporary stop on their journey. Some of them were acclaimed painters from Guangzhou’s art sphere and were friends of Lui’s father, Lui Tsan-ming (1892–1963), a well-respected scholar, government official, artist, and art dealer who owned an antiques shop in Guangdong’s capital. Through his father, Lui Shou-kwan met a circle of established painters who recognised his artistic talent and mastery of traditional Chinese brush techniques. These mainland artists moved to Hong Kong and formed various art groups to promote Chinese art in Hong Kong and beyond.
Lui was the youngest founding member of the Hong Kong Chinese Art Club, an art society that consisted of many mainland painters who had moved southward. The Hong Kong Chinese Art Club was initially established in 1956 as an alternative to the Hong Kong Art Club, which focused on watercolours and oil paintings. The Hong Kong Chinese Art Club was perhaps the most influential art group at the time. In 1957, it organised an exhibition that travelled throughout Southeast Asia. The show featured 142 paintings by Chinese artists in Hong Kong who belonged to the Classical School, which advocated traditional Chinese painting, and the Lingnan School, which embraced a more Westernised approach. The two schools represented different views in the debate on how the Chinese painting tradition should be carried forward in response to changing times.
During the same period, Lui was also a member of the Seven Artists Club, a short-lived art collective consisting of Lui and six other artists, including renowned painters Chao Shao-an (1905–1998) and Ding Yanyong (1902–1978). The group held its only exhibition at St. John’s Cathedral in Central in 1957, with Lui’s ink paintings of the Hong Kong landscape displayed alongside Chao’s monumental hanging scrolls of kapok trees rendered in the Lingnan style and Ding’s Fauvist oil paintings.
In 1958, Lui and his father participated in the second annual exhibition of the Bingshen Art Club (Ping Sheng Art Club) , which was co-founded by Chao. A black-and-white reprint of Lui’s Lion Rock was published in the exhibition catalogue. More than a decade later, in 1969, Lui showcased his abstract ink paintings at the club’s fifth annual exhibition.
Lui originally studied economics at university. Because of the war and precarity, he did not receive any formal art training. Perhaps this background allowed Lui the freedom to interpret the traditions of Chinese painting from his own trajectory. His artistic practice was paralleled by his research on Chinese painting and its expanded field. He read extensively on the principles and theories of traditional Chinese art as well as its history and underlying philosophy. In the early 1950s, Lui started sharing his discoveries on these subjects by writing for various Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong, including Wah Kiu Yat Po, where he penned a regular column titled ‘A Study of Chinese Painting’. These writings were later compiled into a 140,000-word book published in 1956 that offered unique insights into the visual elements of Chinese painting traditions.
Lui was also one of six members of the Society of Hong Kong Artists, which was made up of Chinese, British, and American artists based in Hong Kong. Douglas Bland (1923–1975) and Kwong Yeu-ting (1922–2011) were also part of this group. The members believed that teaming up gave them better opportunities for showing their works. A short review of their 1957 show published in the English-language newspaper The China Mail described the members as ‘Hong Kong painters who may one day be known as a Hong Kong School.’ Wucius Wong (b. 1936) first saw Lui’s paintings at this exhibition, and the two artists subsequently befriended each other. In a magazine article that Wong wrote in memory of Lui, he described this exhibition as a milestone in Hong Kong modern art because it exemplified a quality of togetherness and comprehensiveness among the participating artists.
As Lui became more rooted in Hong Kong, he deepened his research on Chinese painting with extended consideration of the currents in European and American modern art. As a personal project, Lui and artist Li Xipeng (1908–2001) co-translated Herbert Read’s (1893–1968) The Meaning of Art, which was first published in 1931. Lui rediscovered the abstract and expressionistic elements of Chinese tradition in his paintings in the early 1960s and eventually developed his celebrated ‘Zen paintings’ while occasionally revisiting traditional painting styles at the same time. Meanwhile, Lui’s artistic network also continued to expand.
As he established his reputation in Hong Kong’s art scene, Lui became a mentor to the younger generation of artists. In 1960, members of the Modern Literature and Art Association, including Wong, invited Lui to become both honorary advisor and president of the selection committee for the First Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings. The exhibition showcased over eighty works by local and international artists, including Kim Keechang from South Korea and Xavier Longobardi from France. Painters from the Seven Artists Club and the Society of Hong Kong Artists were also invited. In the exhibition booklet’s preface, Lui wrote that the works on display represented ‘the assimilation, the transformation [of art culture between the East and the West], and the germination of a spontaneous and self-conscious art in this century’.
Reframing Chinese Ink Art
Lui always questioned the conventional way of teaching and learning Chinese painting solely by copying classical works and suppressing individual creativity. He stressed that this age-old teaching method was due for renewal and emphasised that the ‘correct’ understanding of Chinese tradition should encourage self-expression, adding that a new curriculum was essential for Chinese painting to remain pertinent and rigorous. Lui began to give private art classes in the late 1950s. Around 1964, he was invited to teach Chinese painting at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Architecture. A year later, Wong invited him to teach at the Department of Extramural Studies (now the School of Continuing and Professional Studies) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The courses Lui taught were strawman proposals for a future undergraduate programme that he envisioned for ink art, a term he began to use in the mid-1960s to replace ‘Chinese painting’, since it appealed to a broader trajectory of international art development. In Lui’s archive, his notebooks document how he revised the course content over time.
In 1968, twelve of Lui’s students founded the In Tao Art Association. The group’s members included Irene Chou (1924–2011), who later became a renowned artist, and Laurence Tam (1933–2013), who became an art museum curator. Between 1970 and 1972, the association held a series of public programmes called ‘Monthly Art Talks’ to promote New Ink art. Lui was featured as the keynote speaker, and his speeches were summarised in two issues of The Perspective magazine in 1972. In hindsight, the talks could be read as a manifesto for the New Ink movement.
Another group founded by Lui’s students was the One Art Group. Most of the members attended the ink art course at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The painting collective organised a few exhibitions in the 1970s. Its 1976 exhibition, held one year after Lui’s death, showcased large-scale paintings by fourteen artists and was considered a milestone of the New Ink movement. In 1985, a group of Lui’s former students came together and organised an exhibition to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing.
Lui’s involvement in art was multifaceted. He played the roles of painter, critic, writer, educator, and dedicated participant in various art groups. His influence on the development of the New Ink movement was cut short by his untimely death at the age of fifty-six. However, many who studied under Lui and were inspired by him became leading artists, designers, educators, and curators in their own right and played crucial roles in shaping the trajectory of art in Hong Kong. Many also regarded the New Ink movement as a pivotal moment in the creation of the city’s own cultural identity.
The Lui Shou-kwan Archive reveals colourful details about the artist’s practice and the post-war art scene in Hong Kong, which was made up of dispersed networks of artists and art lovers. These groups played a huge part in the city’s art heritage, but their traces had been lost over time. The Lui Shou-kwan Archive exhumes the history of these groups with primary sources such as rare photographs, exhibition publications, and press clippings. While Lui was recognised as a considerable contributor to the development of art in Hong Kong, existing research of his works and thoughts had previously been scattered among other artists’ archives and publications. Not only does the Lui Shou-kwan Archive and its cornucopia of materials restore the details of Lui’s legacy, it opens up possibilities of discovery that may draw out new narratives in art history.
All images: M+, Hong Kong. Gift in honour of Lui Shou-kwan, 2019. © Helen C. Ting.
K.C. Harvey, ‘Creative Art Exhibition One of Most Interesting; Many Gather at Opening’, Hong Kong Tiger Standard, 29 October 1957. [CA62/3/3]
Anonymous contributor, ‘Hong Kong Artists’, The China Mail, 26 October 1957. [CA62/3/3]
Wucius Wong, ‘In Memory of Lui Shou-kwan’, The Perspective, Issue 65, 16 October 1975, 67-68. [CA62/6/2/39]
Lui Shou-kwan, ‘Preface I (Translated from Chinese)’, Exhibition catalogue of the First Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings, 1960, 2.