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As one of China's leading artists Liu has radically changed the landscape of traditional ink painting

Born in 1953, the eminent Chinese artist Liu Dan’s first encounter with western painting was via hundreds of ‘dark and indistinct’ photographs, clandestinely snapped by a fellow student from a salvaged volume on masterpieces of European painting during their ‘re-education’ in the countryside as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Liu later trained extensively in traditional Chinese ink and brush painting (guohua), building on the thorough grounding in calligraphy received from his grandfather as a young boy.

The combination of these elements is key to his work today – monumental canvases of organic, elemental forms and rolling landscapes articulated meticulously in ink and brush – which are on show at the Ashmolean this winter alongside Raphael drawings from the museum’s own collection. Liu’s paintings do not, however, merely imitate the masters of the past in an effort to surpass their achievements. Rather, he pushes beyond traditional boundaries, through scale, subject matter and form, to open up ‘new artistic vistas’ and bring the latest scientific thinking into dialogue with ancient philosophy and painting techniques: a ‘micro exploration through macro understanding’. ‘Why should there be shortcuts?’ Liu asked in an interview in 2015. On looking at the spectacular results of this painter’s fastidious and demanding approach to his art, one might well ask.

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