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March 4, 2011

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A master who conjured elegance of the past

LIU Danzhai, famous for illustrating the classic "A Dream of Red Mansions," died in Shanghai on Wednesday morning, but his vivid work lives on.

Liu, who was 80, was one of China's most famous traditional ink-wash artists and his works fetched high prices at auctions.

His works are best known through books, such as Chinese classics, that he illustrated.

In accordance with Liu's will, there will be no funeral or mourning hall. "His art will be rewarded to the public," according to Liu's son, Liu Tianwei.

"When I was in primary school, I read 'A Dream of Red Mansions" illustrated by Liu," recalls Christine Wu, a 40-something professional who's a big fan of Liu's illustration. "At that time I couldn't quite understand the novel, but the picture book encouraged me to read the masterpiece when I grew older. The characters he drew are so vivid and elegant that I even tried to copy them."

Born in 1931 in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, Liu grew up in a poor family but showed his artistic talent at an early age. He held a solo exhibition in his hometown when he was 10 years old.

Liu steeped himself in ancient Chinese history and literature, from which he drew inspiration. Each brushstroke should represent the essence of Chinese culture and art, he used to say.

He was also a master of calligraphy and poetry.

Before illustrating "A Dream of Red Mansions," published in the 1980s, he studied the literary classic carefully and became familiar with the smallest detail of every scene and character. The novel was written in the mid-18th century and describes the decline of a feudal family as a love story unfolds.

Liu also designed a set of postage stamps and issued in 1981. It swept the country.

"If he did not have such a strong understanding of the novel, Liu would not have been able to present his visions of the book," says Wei Shaonong, dean of art at East China Normal University.

Wei and Liu were close friends and traveled together in Europe in 1996.

"Liu was the kind of artist who had a global vision and was willing to express traditional Chinese art through Western concepts. He was also keen on daily international news."

According to Wei, the figures depicted by Liu reflect the spirit of painting by ancient intellectuals.

"Liu didn't just 'dress' his characters in ancient costumes, he intended to create communication between ancient characters and modern viewers through a time tunnel," Wei says.

According to Wei, Liu had three unfulfilled wishes.

"He regretted that there was not a world-class art academy in Shanghai; that his idea of establishing Shanghai Traditional Painting Research Institute had not been fully developed and that there hadn't been a systematic survey or theory to peer with the essence of Chinese culture - calligraphy," Wei notes.

"Liu was truly a great master who established a certain high art standard and his departure puts an end to an era," he adds.


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