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The artist whose paintings sing with life

Acclaimed artist Liu Linghua has made Peking Opera come back to life with his original and striking oil paintings. Wang Jie explores the man who is trying to keep an ancient art alive

Falsetto voices, richly embroidered costumes and extravagant headwear are all part of the tradition of Peking Opera but seem to be losing their place in today's fast-paced society.

However, someone cares enough to try to preserve those delicate ornate moments --rtist Liu Linghua uses his brush strokes to keep the artistry of the stage alive.

It is a success -- at least as successful as any standing ovation.

Liu's solo exhibition with 42 of his paintings is now on show at the Hong Kong Exhibition Center until Sunday.

Organized by All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots, this is the second stop of the artist's China tour after an exhibition in Beijing last November. The third stop will be in Taiwan this coming November.

Nearly 200 celebrities including government officials and famous artists attended the opening in Hong Kong.

"I felt honored to be invited here to Hong Kong," says Liu. "I was lucky to find Peking Opera and I try to reflect its enchanting moments in my characters."

Peking Opera is a national treasure with a history going back 200 years.

It combines stylized action, singing, dialogue, mime, acrobatics, fighting and dancing to tell stories and depict different characters and their feelings.

Liu is an artist who has chosen the perfect subject for the perfect medium.

Although Peking Opera is perhaps losing its appeal to many Chinese, it still stands as a symbol of the essence of Chinese culture in the West, and it is reflected in the Western medium of oil on canvas paintings.

A Xi'an native, Liu's career path as an artist seemed to have been easier than some of his peers.

He did not have to endure a great deal of frustration or angst before he had established himself in the art world. He became famous during the 2001 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Shanghai where he was the only Chinese artist with 26 paintings on display.

His paintings have traces of the techniques of impressionism and traditional Chinese painting and graphic art, using broad spontaneous brushwork, sensuous colors, a strong treatment of space and mass, and bold and free expression. His characters, though silent on canvas, seem to be as vivid as if they were performing at this very moment on stage.

Apart from his superb technique, the charisma of Peking Opera, as he interprets it, has stolen the hearts of many Westerners and Chinese intellectuals. The artist received glowing accolades in the Washington Post where he was labeled "a great master of Chinese art."

Liu has signed a contract with Shanghai Chinese Quintessence Art Co Ltd which also promotes works other than his paintings such as embroideries and scarves.

"We hope to exchange the essence of traditional Chinese culture with this exhibition," says Wang Jiamu, general manager at Jincui. "But we have a bigger ambition to spread the magic of Chinese traditional art to people around the world."

Liu's paintings carry astronomical prices - it was said that the Liu's "Drunken Beauty" which was displayed at APEC 2001 in Shanghai was valued at about 50 million yuan (US$7.3 million). And the by-products of Liu's art - the embroideries, scarves, books and postcards - have been donated to more than 1,700 museums, art galleries, libraries, universities and news agencies in 200 countries and regions.

At the opening of the exhibition in Hong Kong, 1,000 of Liu's books worth HK$500,000 (US$64,489) were donated to the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers.

"Unlike some other Chinese artists, Liu has his own mission to improve the cultural liaison of China with other countries and regions," Wang explains.

But could such heavy social responsibilities drain an artist's inspiration?

Liu is clear on that.

"I am not painting and have never painted for any reason other than art whether in the beginning or right now," he says. "For me, it is interesting to use Western techniques for an ancient Chinese art form. Peking Opera is an inexhaustible source. It is worth dedicating my whole life to."

Despite the international popularity of his paintings, Liu likes to keep a low profile.

"All I need is a quiet place for my creations. All other things are taken care of by the company," he says. "I am a simple person who is able to create pure art without too much disturbance."


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