With a quite free and tolerant education full of literature and art (both Eastern and Western), Chinese painter Liu Ye grew up learning stories. His grandmother told many, which attracted kids from all over, who gathered around her with expectation; his father was a professional writer and asked for his family's advice every time he wrote something. This is probably why his current exhibition is titled Storytelling. Held at the beautifully restored building Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai until January 20, Liu Ye presents a series of paintings spanning almost thirty years of his career, characterized by his quest for beauty, and inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, Piet Mondrian, and Eastern characters.
Your art is beautifully simplistic, yet there seems to always be a story to being told. In your exhibition Storytelling, hosted by Prada in Shanghai, you have made a selection of thirty paintings from 1992 onwards. Which story do you intend to tell with it?
Even though I was born during the Cultural Revolution, when China was closed to the world, I was exposed to Western literature and art as a kid because of my family. When I was young, I went to the West to study art, which made me interested in Eastern and Western cultures equally. My works include Chinese backgrounds and characters, as well as Western’s. I think there are many differences between cultures, but there should be no barriers. Telling stories from other cultures from an oriental perspective is not a fantasy, it’s based on empathy. If Bertolucci could do it in The Last Emperor, so could I.
Let’s take a step back a few years. You grew up in Beijing, and your father was the author of children’s books. He’s the one who introduced you to the study of art from an early age. It almost seemed too natural for you to become an artist. Did you ever consider another field of work?
I’m inspired by film and architecture, so I dreamed about being a film director and an architect. I imagine the artwork’s plot as if shooting a movie and constructing the picture like an architect.
Why does art have an unceasing interest for you?
I think the world is made up of two others: the real and the art world – I live in the latter. The art world is so charming, while also so contradictory and complex, that you can both create it and enjoy it.
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Liu Ye. Miffy Getting Married, 2014. Private collection, Berlin
Which values and experiences do you consider important from your upbringing in the Eastern world in comparison to the West? How have they affected you both as an individual and as an artist?
My father loves Western literature very much, he has a lot of books. I started reading them when I was very young. He would read to the whole family whenever he wrote a new work, hoping to get our advice. My mother was a Chinese teacher and knew a lot of (classical) allusions. My grandmother was very good at telling stories, and many children were often around her to hear them. My family education was quite free and tolerant. For example, I often commented on my father’s work, and whether I was correct or not, he would always listen to me patiently.
Your works often depict or include fairy tale-like characters, landscapes, or atmospheres. As I am from Denmark myself and read about your upbringing, I must also ask which is your favourite story from Hans Christian Andersen and why?
In the 1970s, Mr Ye Junjian gave my father a set of his translations of Andersen’s fairy tales. They were very beautiful, and you would slowly forget that it was all written by a European. I liked the female characters in Andersen’s works. The most touching one was The Little Mermaid and The Little Match Girl. The love of the little mermaid is painful, just like ours – ultimately, it is painful.
You have also described every artwork as being a self-portrait. With the title Storytelling for your show, would you consider this exhibition as being autobiographical?
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde described that every picture drawn with emotions is painted by an artist rather than a model. The model is just an accidental intervention. It is a kind of incentive. What is revealed on the canvas is not the model, but the painter himself. My exhibition is not an autobiography of my life, but an emotional autobiography. It records emotions that I can’t copy, even those I don’t even know.
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Liu Ye. Mondrian in the Morning, 2000. Private Collection, Beijing. Photo: Cao Yong (曹勇)
In many of your paintings, you also reference several very influential painters such as Piet Mondrian, René Magritte and Paul Klee. And even the cartoon rabbit Miffy, by Dutch cartoonist Dick Bruna. A lot of artists (if not all) indirectly find inspiration in other works of art, but how come you choose to depict them so directly? What do they represent to you?
I think art and nature are parallel, so getting inspiration from art is like getting it from nature. An image in art is like a tree in nature, you can describe it in your language.
Which artists do you think are important in our current times, and why?
There is no artist who is absolutely important to us. I think art is complicated and contradictory, but also rich. Dick Bruna is just as important as Da Vinci.
Throughout decades, social and political issues have played a big part in the art scene among Chinese artists. Some would even use the term ‘weapon’ in relation to the many value-laden artworks. From the very beginning of your career, you have chosen to defer from this. How come?
Compared with art, social and political events are not worth mentioning. Art is not about politics. Art itself is politics. I think beauty is the only form to save the world.
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Liu Ye. Prelude, 2018. Private Collection, Beijing. Photo: Cao Yong (曹勇)
Prada has helped restore the premises of Rong Zhai, a historic building from 1918 that reopened a year ago thanks to the Italian brand. How do you feel your paintings interact with such a historical space? Which importance do you give to the space your artworks are shown in?
The charm of Rong Zhai comes from the mix of cultures and layers brought by time. The inspirations for my paintings also come from the history of different cultures and arts. Udo Kittelmann carefully selected the works to correspond to different rooms, which helps build polyphonic relationships between my work and Rong Zhai. Space is not only a container for works but also an extension of the meaning of the work.
Some would say a piece of art is not a piece of art unless it has an audience, and that the communicative factor is what allows it to be art. What does yours have to say to the audience?
People’s view of art is also an expression. I am fascinated by the audiences’ different interpretations (and even misunderstandings) of the works. I sincerely think that I have no right to tell the audience what the works are, I just want to know what I am through my work. To know and understand oneself is often the most difficult.
Your paintings and their stories have evolved since the beginning of your career. In what direction do you see yourself going as an artist? Is there something specific that influences your work these days?
Complexity and richness can be described in simple and concise language, which is the direction of my work. The exploration of human emotions has always been the subject of my interest. I have painted people or things that I love. I don't want to educate others with my works, I don't have the ambition. Recently, I moved my studio to somewhere very close to my home, so that I no longer have to suffer from traffic jams. I think this is good news.
The exhibition Storytelling, by Liu Ye, will be on view until January 20, 2019, at Prada Rong Zhai, Nº.186 North Shaan Xi Road, Jing’an District, Shanghai.
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Liu Ye. Romeo, 2002. Fu Ruide Collection, Netherlands
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Liu Ye. Book Painting No. 20, (Blossfeldt, Urformen der kunst, verlag Ernst wasmuth GMBH, Berlin, 1936.), 2017. Private Collection, Beijing. Photo: Cao Yong (曹勇)
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Liu Ye. Untitled, 1997-98. Private Collection of W. Tanoko, Indonesia
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Liu Ye. Catherine Deneuve, 2012. Private Collection, Beijing. Photo: Cao Yong (曹勇)
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Liu Ye. The Goddess, 2018. Private Collection, Beijing. Photo: Cao Yong (曹勇)
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Liu Ye. Bird on Bird, 2011. Wang Bing Collection, Beijing
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Liu Ye. Book Painting No. 1, 2013. Liu Lan Collection, Beijing