1998 / 10月
《春有百花》117x84cm 絹本 一九九三，由李蘇羽的花卉作品，可見其成熟的寫實技巧。
《及笄》54x80cm 絹本 八○年代，走遍中國大陸十三省之後，李蘇羽開始以歷史人物、傳統風俗等中國文化為創作主題。
《千年萬載不生塵》75x80cm 絹本 一九九五，揉合水墨勾勒與西方超現實手法，李蘇羽感同身受地表達漢朝美女王昭君客居異鄉的心境。
Chi Yue /photos courtesy of pictures courtesy of Lee Su Yue /tr. by Brent Heinrich
Potted flowers in bloom are set in a modern living room, and rendered in the polychrome, light-and-shadow style of Western paintings. The flowers and the tea table seem to be real; however, the positioning of the flowers and the fluttering of the butterflies reveal the tonality of Chinese water-and-ink paintings.
Like the Italian painter Guiseppe Castiglione, who introduced Western perspective and representational techniques into Chinese water-and-ink, Lee Su Yue, having received a complete education in both Western and Eastern art in both Taiwan and the United States, has demonstrated a new dimension of water-and-ink painting, traversing the gap between East and West.
Water-and-ink is the main medium of Lee Su Yue's creative work, but it would not fitting to label her a simple water-and-ink artist. "I never impose limitations upon myself. I'm a human being, not a woman. I'm an artist, not a water-and-ink painter."
An all-around artist
Having graduated from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taiwan she studied watercolor painting with Wen Chi, calligraphy with Yuan Shu-wu, and traditional Chinese bird-and-landscape painting with Wu Yung-hsiang, as well as Southern School painting techniques. In America, she majored in art education at the University of Missouri, and in clothing design at the University of Miami. She then obtained an MA in education from Florida International University. In her artistic works, she has employed watercolor, color with glue on silk (sometimes called "glue-color"), and oils, as well as metal welding, sculpting, ceramics and glass beads; she has also delved into theatrical design, clothing and jewelry design.
Brimming with energy, Lee Su Yue asserts, "Artistic creation parallels life; you have different preferences at different stages. We should experience as much as possible, so that our internal universe may be rich." In terms of living, "If there's anything that's good, I love to give it a go." She swims, skates and skis. To experience how it feels to look down on the earth from high above, she learned to fly airplanes, and has earned her pilot's license.
A water-and-ink artist is born
Lee was born in Sichuan Province in 1944 and grew up in Taiwan. Her mother, Chiang Tung-hsiang, was herself a painter of the traditional gongbi form (characterized by delicate brushwork). Her uncle Li Lin-tsan was formerly a curator at the National Palace Museum. Since childhood, Lee Su Yue has been good at expressing her feelings with the brush. When four or five, she heard on the radio that "Li Li-hua is wearing a pair of beautiful high heels on her visit to Taiwan," and she began to picture that pair of high-heeled shoes in her mind and put them on the wall. All the walls in her home were always adorned with her murals. The neighbors thought her mother spoiled her, but her mother always encouraged her daughter's artistic endeavors, and would answer, "Never mind. We'll just paint the wall again, and that'll be that."
This kind of free and tolerant upbringing made it possible for Lee Su Yue to constantly achieve personal breakthroughs, not restricted to a certain school or set of techniques. Lee's uncle Li Lin-tsan thought that the making of Lee Su Yue as an artist "was both a matter of nature and nurture. She has the gift, and has received the best cultivation."
After she studied in America, both her creative work and lifestyle turned more colorful. Her works were admitted to the National Watercolor Society, and her paintings soon appeared in exhibitions far and near. She also won a sponsorship from America's Southeast Airlines to travel around the world for four months doing outdoor sketches, from Europe to the Middle East to East Asia. At the time, she was not even 30, but she had either personal or joint exhibitions three times a year in the US. NBC once aired a 30-minute exclusive interview with her during a prime time slot right before an NFL football game. She feels that the encouragement and affirmation that American society gives young people bolstered her confidence in taking the road of art when she was but a mere fledgling.
I am Wang Zhaojun
1980 was a creative turning point for Lee Su Yue. She spent three months traveling through 13 provinces in mainland China. She found out that stuff she had read in history and geography textbooks and poems from the Tang and Song dynasties was still in existence today. The emotional bond with her people that flowed in her blood suddenly awakened. Especially when she arrived in the ancient capital of Xi'an, she was moved by the cultural interchange between China and the ancient cultures of Central Asia, as well as the literary, artistic and musical glories of the Tang dynasty.
Thereafter she began to incorporate history with painting, taking inspiration from the various forms of Chinese poetry, as well as Chinese fiction, and she also abandoned splash-ink techniques, and began once again to use gongbi water-and-ink painting, adopting an attitude of spiritual cultivation. Since then, she has produced such paintings as The Wrath of Concubine Yu, which portrays a tragic tale; Beauties Journeying, depicting Tang-dynasty ladies dressed up for an excursion; Gaming in the High Tang, which depicts the prosperous society and folk customs of the Tang era; and Praying for Blessings, which portrays female performance school students, sans makeup, praying for peace at the end of the year. As she painted people of ancient times, the highly empathetic Lee Su Yue was able to intuit the emotions of the ancients.
One time when she was on an airplane, Lee Su Yue read the news that a female corpse from the Han dynasty had been found buried under the ice of the Altai Mountains, along with six horses. Some scholars speculated that it might be the remains of the Han-dynasty beauty Wang Zhaojun.
Lee Su Yue, herself having lived in a foreign land, has always been greatly touched by the story of the lonely and brokenhearted Wang Zhaojun, who was married out to a barbarian chieftain of the western hinterlands and buried in an alien country. Therefore, Lee used a surrealistic technique to draw Everlasting. In the painting, Wang Zhaojun holds her lute and floats in space, with six horses watching over her. Wang Zhaojun is Lee; she is Wang Zhaojun. In this way, Chinese culture and historical tales exist in the lives of every contemporary person.
"Longing for an idealized antiquity and sentimentally reflecting upon history are extremely common in Chinese art," notes Lang Shaojun, director of modern art studies at the China Art Research Center in Beijing. "But Lee Su Yue's historical sentiments seem to be related to her experience as an expatriate Chinese. Subconsciously, this might be a kind of spiritual compensation as a result of two decades away from her motherland."
Bridging the ancient and the modern
Having painted ladies of the Han and Tang dynasties, Lee Su Yue then traveled back to the present, treating images of women more familiar to her. She uses light ink to sparsely sketch their fine appearances, with distant moods to transmit the different character of each subject. She makes innovative use of blank space, an aspect about which Chinese artists are very particular. Within the white spaces of the canvas she places obscure scenery or color to portray an aura. She says, "The goal I pursue is how to demonstrate the splendor of present-day people without losing touch with the traditions of Chinese portraiture."
Because of their breadth, Lee Su Yue's creations might be considered insufficiently deep, and her means of presentation which merges influences Eastern and Western is still experimental and seems to be slightly forced. Nonetheless, says Li Lan, chairperson of the Sino-American Folk Arts Association, located in the United States, in Lee's paintings there lurks a glorious and mysterious cultural China, marching slowly from the traditional to the modern, just like those personalities that have come to life through her brushes-very elegant and languorous.
Lee Su Yue, who has received a complete art education both in Taiwan and the US, feels that there is something very beautiful about both Chinese and Western cultures. Unconsciously, she blends the two into one. "Her paintings amalgamate various techniques, including glue-and-color-on-silk and water-and-ink. On the surface is the coordination of realism, symbolism and surrealism, reflecting a sort of natural, balanced and fresh effect, attained after traditional art has been baptized by modern civilization," opines art critic Huang Hsiao-shih.
For Lee Su Yue, to paint on a raw silk canvas stretched tightly on a frame, with either traditional Chinese or oil-painting brushes, is to flow fluidly, as if skiing or skating across the wide landscape in early spring. She most readily loses herself within the energetic interaction between brush and canvas. Whether in art or life, she never imposes restrictions. Today she achieves spiritual cultivation through the minute, delicate details of gongbi painting. As for the future, she says smilingly, "My ideal is... to use ink with absolute composure."
In addition to painting, Lee Su Yue is also involved in sculpting. Whether in her work or her life, her interests range far and wide.
Spring Flowers, silk, 117 x 84 cm, 1993. Lee Su Yue's flower paintings reveal her mature representational techniques.
The First Facial and Hairdo Ceremony of a Young Courtesan, silk, 54 x 80 cm, 1980s. After traveling through thirteen provinces in mainland China, Lee Su Yue began to adopt historical personages, traditional customs and other aspects of Chinese culture as her subject matter.
Everlasting, silk, 75 x 80 cm, 1995. Blending water-and-ink drawing techniques with a Western surrealistic style, Lee Su Yue expresses with deep emotion the sense of exile felt by the Han-dynasty beauty Wang Zhaojun.