Liu Xiaodong in conversation with Barry Schwabsky in The Brooklyn Rail
4 May 2023
Liu Xiaodong—as John Yau observed in his 2021 monograph on the artist—“epitomizes Baudelaire’s description of ‘the painter of modern life’ as an ‘independent, passionate, and impartial nature,’ even as he expands on it.” For more than three decades the peripatetic artist has roamed far and wide from his base in Beijing to immerse himself, and the viewers of his work, in a world constantly transforming in unpredictable ways. In anticipation of his exhibition Shaanbei at Lisson Gallery, New York, for which I am writing a catalogue essay, I spoke to Liu Xiaodong over Zoom. Marco Betelli, the artist’s studio manager, kindly assisted with translations back and forth between English and Chinese.
Barry Schwabsky (Rail): Liu Xiaodong, it’s a pleasure to meet you at last. I was hoping we could start by asking how you became an artist or rather, when did you discover your desire to make art?
Liu Xiaodong: Hello, Barry. When I was in the third grade of elementary school, one of my teachers decided that I was quite good at drawing, or anyway better than other kids. At that point, of course, I had absolutely no training in drawing or painting. So I then started copying some Chinese Revolutionary era artists. And then it was my uncle that actually gave me my first real training in the arts, in painting. My uncle had me copy illustrations, and then focus on color. So it was the English watercolors from the eighteenth century and some Russian artists that were my first models. Later on, I applied for the high school affiliated to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. And that’s when I started off on the path of becoming a professional artist.
Rail: So, until you went to the Central Academy, it sounds like you really did not have access to museums or to actually seeing original works of art by fine artists, but were seeing things that had to do with what we might call more like illustration, is that right?
Liu: Yes, Barry, you’re absolutely correct. In fact, before going to Beijing, I had no access to museums, to exhibitions. The only art I knew was those English watercolors, and these Russian artists that my uncle had me copying, and what I would do was paint from life my school mates, or go down to the field and do some drawing, do some sketches. It’s only when I went to Beijing that I had access to libraries, to exhibitions, to museums. So I got to know the French Impressionists. I got to know the works of Cézanne, Picasso. And then I saw art magazines with Pop art and that kind of thing.
Rail: I’m not surprised to hear that among the first works that you were shown were these ones by Russian artists, because we know about the influence that Russia’s socialist-realist art had in China, but I’m much more surprised to hear mention of the English watercolors—I think you said eighteenth century? And was that an unusual interest that your uncle had? Or was that something that was more widely appreciated in China at the time? What’s the story there?
Liu: My uncle actually graduated from an art Academy. What happened was that during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he was forced to get rid of all of the materials, all of the art catalogues he had—he only saved two: one from these Russian artists, and one from these English watercolor painters. So that’s the reason. And what my uncle would do was encourage me to observe, when painting from life, to be very, very careful about details, even if it was, you know, painting a field, painting a tree, painting the grass. So that really made an impact on my practice back then.
Read the full cover story in The Brooklyn Rail here.
Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei is on view at Lisson Gallery New York through June 10.
Image: Portrait of Liu Xiaodong, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.