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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Liu Kang

Liu Kang and his wife
Liu Kang died in 2004 at the age of 94. Today's generation might recognize the name as the muscular, barechested video game character from Mortal Kombat. I don't know if there's a connection but I'm not talking about that Liu Kang. My Liu Kang was the venerable painter and national treasure of Singapore. He was born in Fujian Province, China in 1910 where he lived until he was six. It was then his family moved to Muar, Malaysia where his father established himself in the rubber business. At the age of fifteen, an extraordinary art talent already evidencing itself, Kang returned to China to study at the Shanghai College of Fine Arts, then at a neighboring school where he graduated in 1928. With an artist friend (who later became his brother-in-law), Liu Kang set off to study in Paris where he met and was influenced by Matisse and Picasso, as well as the earlier Post-impressionist, van Gogh and Gauguin. He returned to Shanghai in 1933 where he became a professor of art until the Chinese war with Japan forced him to flee back to Muar in 1937.

Sketch of the Burmese Railroad, 1944, Liu Kang
However, the war followed him. The Japanese captured Malaysia and Kang saw firsthand its horrors. In 1946, following the surrender, Kang began his "Chop Suey" series, which he later published in an illustrated book. Named for the popular Chinese-American "hash" with no set recipe, its ingredients, chosen at the whim of the chef, Kang's work during this period depicts in graphic detail the brutality, and humiliation suffered at the hands of Japanese occupying forces. Scenes of bodily torture, rape, killings, and public defilement of streets and churches witnessed himself, and based upon accounts of others, are displayed in horrific detail. At one point, he narrowly escaped torture and death himself by agreeing to paint a portrait of one of his interrogators. Kang hoped his work would cause the older generation of Japanese to feel shame while revealing such atrocities to the younger generation so that such things would never happen again. They are not a pretty sight. Click here to see a copy of Chop Suey.

Back to Nature, Liu Kang
Juxtaposed against the "Chop Suey" series are works from both before and after the war years exhibiting a charming oriental/French quality that has made his work and style unique in the world of art. At first glance, there is the mark of Gauguin, plenty of nudes, deep greens and raw blues, but in studying his images more closely, one sees Impressionist qualities, Renoir in his female figures, Matisse in his patterned interiors, and van Gogh in his intensely colorful landscapes. His "Nanyang" (south seas) period starting in the 1950s bears no resemblance or relationship to his "Chop Suey" work. They could be by two different artists. Liu Kang is a traditional artist. Never forgetting his teaching days, he advised students to learn the fundamentals, practice basic painting techniques, travel widely, and never cease learning to draw. From someone who, despite the personal ravages of war, did exactly that for most of a century, it's sage advice.


  1. Hi Jim,
    I have a framed batik of a flower and on the back it is typed on a piece of paper,
    Liu 1942 China
    Is there any chance your Liu worked in batik?

  2. I couldn't say for certain, but I'm thinking there's more than a "chance" that would be the case. I'd have it checked out by a museum expert or art appraiser.

  3. Thank you for your input and time. All the best!