Mr. Liu

John Trenhaile

Engineer, watercolorist, and cultural anthropologist, Max Chiwai Liu seems to have discovered the knack of extracting the most from life while continuing to produce books that charm and paintings to lift up the heart.

During the 1950s, most of Taiwan 's more prestigious artistic performances, exhibitions, and gatherings took place at the old Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in downtown Taipei . One block away stands the headquarters of the state-owned Taiwan Sugar Corp., where Max Chiwai Liu used to work as an electrical engineer. One day in 1949, he wandered across the street to the nearby memorial hall to visit an exhibition of the work of watercolorist Hsiang Hung(香洪), and his life changed forever.

Liu was greatly impressed by the hall's dignified atmosphere, at least partly the result of the many paintings that graced its walls. Later, he talked about the visit with a friend who said: “Hsiang Hung was an engineer just like you - why don’t you have a stab at painting?” Liu, stuck in an unsatisfying government job, took the words to heart and plunged into painting without even bothering to hire a teacher.

Long before Liu picked up his paintbrushes in early middle age, he had become fascinated with art. “I’d been fond of appreciating paintings but I’d never learned anything about technique,”he says. “When I was little I used to go crazy about all those paints on sale in department stores.” As a boy he remembers also being fascinated by the vibrant colors of such everyday things as vegetables and animals, and by the fresh green hue of grass after rain. Carving out a new career is never easy, however. When Liu took up painting he had a galaxy of talent to compete against, both homegrown on Taiwan and immigrants from mainland China . Liu did not belong to any particular school, and since he was introduced to painting by watercolorist Hsiang Hung, who was himself inspired by some European-trained mainland Chinese artists, it was perhaps natural that he should begin with watercolors. “Watercolors are easier for amateurs to start with, “ he says, "but the problem is that virtually no changes can be made once you’ve put brush to paper.” Watercolors, in a famous aphorism, are easy to learn but difficult to master.

Never having had a mentor, Liu spent much time with well-known artists like Hsiang Hung and Chang Chieh (張杰), and both soon became his friends. He also consulted experts and the fine arts department of National Taiwan Normal University whenever he had time. “Liu was so brilliant at learning techniques from friends that he left them behind before people knew it,” recalls painter Yao Meng-ku (姚夢谷). The newcomer was indeed making progress at an extraordinary rate. One year after he started painting, his Lonely Hall in Setting Sun was selected for the fifth Taiwan fine Arts Exhibition. He subsequently mounted his first solo exhibition in 1951.

“Painting shouldn’t just involve technique, it should involve a lot of thought,” he says; but when he first started painting he was as enthusiastic about learning as any young student enjoying a first encounter with the big wide world of knowledge. “He not only had this childlike innocence, he also remained modest, and that’s perhaps what kept him driving forward.” says reputed novelist and painter Wang Lan (王藍). “Liu’s modesty is a heartfelt thing. Other famous artists might put on airs-not him.”

Although Liu displayed great artistic talent very early on in his new career, he had to eat and so could not afford to devote himself to art full-time. Only a handful of local people appreciated or bought contemporary paintings, and there were few modern art galleries, so in that era even quite prominent artists would have a daytime job. For example, Hsiang Hung was an architect, and Chang Chien, who later became famous for his paintings of lotuses, was a teacher. Liu held down a government job with Taiwan Sugar and later worked for the US military, which came to Taipei to recruit electrical engineers for its operations in Vietnam . Liu singed on with them for a three-year term. The experience led to an exhibition in 1967 that was to be a watershed for him.

That exhibition focused on Vietnamese culture. “During my decades-long involvement with painting, I made the most progress while I was in Vietnam , because there I didn’t have to be as frugal as before and could try out a lot of materials without thinking twice,” Liu comments. “I was full of joy at finding myself in a country that was so strange and so new to me.”

Life during the Vietnam War was difficult, of course, though while Liu was in Saigon he managed to set up the “3-1 Studio,” which brought together several resident Chinese people who were interested in painting. They used to spread their works out on the ground and criticize one another’s efforts. Liu, fascinated with the beauty of the ancient Indochinese civilization, painted day and night and everywhere. Despite the daily tragedies around him, he made the best use of his time, and it was to show, vividly, in his subsequent artisitic career.

After leaving Vietnam , Liu selected fifty-one of the two hundred-odd paintings he had done there for his 1967 Taipei exhibition. “The management of colors and water in those works is pretty impressive,” says Yao Meng-ku, who was then the chief executive of a Chinese painting association. “In particular, the painter’s arrangement of blank space is rich in traditional Chinese spirit, and the hues and touches inspired by Buddhist frescoes demonstrate both Indian and Chinese flavors.” This exhibition did wonders for Liu’s reputation. Two years later, he was invited to be one of the judges of entries for the first islandwide exhibition of paintings and works of calligraphy. He also became a part-time art professor and won the fourth Sun Yat-Sen Award for cultural creativity.

Since the 1960s, cultural contacts between Taiwan and the West have been steadily increasing. More and more historical materials were being introduced to the island, along with the latest developments in Western painting, thus paving the way for local studies of modern Western art both on and off campus. Many aspiring artists chose to work under their own supervision, thanks to the inflow of foreign publications regarding artistic concepts and techniques. Some of them were very successful, but Liu outperformed the field, not only because of his enormous prowess, but on account of his enthusiasm for translating foreign painting concepts into Chinese.

Critic and painter Lin Hsing-yueh (林惺嶽) is particularly impressed with this skill. “What distinguished Liu from most painters is that he virtually plowed the field of painting with a paintbrush in one hand and a pen in the other.” he says, “His appetite for reading and translating equals his love of painting. It was a time when Time and Life were the only foreign periodicals in the market and people were desperate for Western know-how. Liu injected knowledge of Western art into this country through his unswerving pursuit of learning and his eloquence in the English language.”

His earlier articles were printed in in-house publications put out by his employer, Taiwan Sugar Corp. throughout the 1960s he contributed to local magazines, writing about the evolution of Western art, comparing Chinese and Western painting, and expressing his personal experiences of studying art. He also published a number of books, such as Joy in Art, Words of art, Painting Watercolors, and Basic Theories of Modern Painting. Of these, Painting Watercolors, is perhaps the most famous, consisting mostly of translations of writings by the American watercolorist Eliot O’Hara. For many years it was the only basic Chinese-language handbook of watercoloring.

“Liu’s research on modern Western art was not aimed at attacking local traditions, or at promoting any sort of ideologies or radical movements, but simply based on curiosity and desire for knowledge,” says Lin Hsing-yueh. Almost all schools of painting since impressionism interested Liu. In the critic’s words, Liu had wide reading and learning, but was never bitter. Accordingly, during a period when Taiwan ’s artistic conservatives and liberals were going at each other hammer and tongs, Liu just quietly got on with publishing his translations. “Liu’s translation work has been extraordinarily valuable in pioneering painting concepts since the 1960s,” Lin says.

Liu was greatly inspired by Paul Klee (1879-1940), a famous Swiss artist and master of expressionism who was active in the early twentieth century. In Klee’s works, Liu saw a fascinating world. “Dubbed as the magician of patterns, Klee’s paintings are characterized by his expert use of line, which he uses to present the kind of dream-like scenes found only in the world of fairy tales,” Liu says. “Klee is my favorite surrealistic artist. His arrangement of colors makes space first collapse and then resurge, as in a tragicomedy.”

Liu retired from engineering in 1971 when he was sixty, and has been concentrating on artistic work ever since. He likes to emphasize the importance of portraying sincere emotions and thoughts in painting, saying that even a little girl can write a moving letter home. A story with true feelings revealed “between the lines” will always impress people, even though it may not read smoothly. And that is no less true of painting, where the most important thing is not bare technique, but sincerity and emotion.

With this in mind, in the 1970s Liu produced a series of lyric paintings that depicted an indistinct world drifting somewhere in the void that exists between “absolute”art and nature, or between abstraction and concreteness. In brief, he expressed himself through a semi-abstract style that put most emphasis on this own passion, rather than natural appearances. His 1979 Evening Call, which conveys cherished memories on his grandma, remains his favorite work.

Critic Ni Tsai-chin (倪再沁) wrote that Evening Call was the beginning of Liu’s return to the unadorned. “Involving neither greatness nor localism, Liu doesn’t limit himself to so-called peoples, localities, trends, and so on, but exists like an indigen of the world on modern painting,” he says. “He simply nourishes, with the most condensed innocence, the over-civilized but empty minds of people like us. “The critic comments that Liu never seemed to follow a traditional path. “I am marginal, yes, but I’m just too busy to care about that sort of thing at all,” Liu says with a shrug.

Liu’s watercolors are very ingenious and interesting, from time to time revealing an innocent, humorous temperament without academic seriousness and stubbornness or adhesion to fixed techniques,” Lin Hsing-yueh says. National Taiwan Normal University professor Liu Wen-tan (劉文潭) comments that Max Liu’s subject matter-flowers trees, animals, insects-are far from fresh, though the sweetness of their shapes, his elegance in use of color, and the sheer inspiration of the work always impress viewers.

Then Liu yet again chose to change focus. He became absorbed with primitive art and anthropology, another example of this pioneering spirit. His role and reputation as a painter increasingly gave him greater access to the world of anthropology. During the 1980s, this tall, thin gray-haired old gentleman could often be seen reading and taking notes in the libraries of either National Taiwan University ’s department of anthropology of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Ethnology . “In order to picture the primitive art that inspired modern painting, you need to research the social background,” he says. “So I started studying primitive societies and stepped into the realm of cultural anthropology.”

In 1972, at the age of 61, Liu was invited to lecture in the Philippines and take a look at the culture and art of indigenous people while he was there. He spent eight months working with a team of curators, archaeological scholars, and students who were doing research on the culture and art of the Igorot tribe. They explored the mountainous areas of Luzon and found that tribal culture was disappearing and in urgent need of preservation, much as it was in Taiwan . Based on the research, in the following year Liu published Culture and Art of the Philippine Minorities, his first book on cultural anthropology, which in 1973 won him an award from the Philippines Committee on Arts and Culture for his contribution to the culture of Southeast Asia .

Three years later, opportunity came knocking again. Liu visited Seoul to attend an international conference on Asian arts convened by scholars from George Washington University and various South Korean and Japanese academic institutions. While staying there, Liu, with camera and notebook always at hand, enjoyed visiting many ancient archeological sites. He was particularly impressed by the ancient architecture of the monolithic temples crected at Kyung Ju. “Those structures are made up of circles, globes, triangles, hexagonals, and octagons, and well organized in harmonious order, with beautiful mechanics,” he says.

Throughout the 1970s, Liu retained his enthusiasm for the indigenous tribes of Taiwan as he continued his research in the Philippines and South Korea . Commissioned by Hsiung Shih Art Monthly, in 1972 he conducted a field survey of the Ceremony of the Dwarfs (or Pastaai) of the Saisiyat tribe in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan . The ceremony was originally to appease the souls of a race of dwarfs who, according to legend, once taught the Saisiyat to farm, sing, and dance, but also harassed and threatened their women.

Liu expanded his research to include the Paiwan, Atayal, and Yami tribes. For instance, in conjunction with Chung Yuan Christian College ’s department of architecture, where he was a professor, he surveyed a dozen Paiwan cultural sites in the south of the island. (In the 1960s he had done a series of watercolors featuring the Paiwan tribe.)

When asked what indigenous peoples here and elsewhere should do to improve their situation, Liu tersely replies: “Leave it up to them.” He explains his thinking in Culture and Art of the Formosan Aborigines, first published in 1979 and revised sixteen years later. The book has enjoyed ongoing popularity since it appeared. “Happy smiles are visible everywhere in pictures of the tribespeople taken from any angle, but people from the plains still want to teach their children how to look vivacious”-thus Liu ironically captioned a picture he took of seven cheerful-looking indigenous children.

Liu next became curious about other tribes scattered throughout Southeast Asia . As the result of his lecturing and painting activities, he had many friends in the region, and with their assistance he was able to make his first trip to Sarawak in 1981. Based in the jungle near the equator for three weeks, Liu risked his life to collect a large quantity of valuable primitive artistic and biological materials. He lived with various tribes, including headhunters, and took more than 2,000 photographs. Liu, then 70, also became the first Chinese in the world to photograph the peoples of next-door Sabah . He visited the Lungus tribe first, then headed south by boat to explore other inland tribes.

That trip was to prove just the beginning of his extensive ventures abroad. In 1993 he traveled to Papua New Guinea to collect specimens as part of an expedition sponsored by a local entrepreneur. Since there was almost no information available in Taiwan about that distant land, Liu spent a whole year preparing for the two-month journey.

Accompanied by his son Liu Ning-sheng(劉寧生), Liu went well prepared and better equipped. With the assistance of the Australian trade office in Taipei , he sought information from museums and universities in Australia . During the exploration, they ate and slept as the local tribespeople did, visiting the Kukukuku tribe, known for their fierceness and fondness for human flesh, and recording in detail their funeral rites. Most of the time they traveled by canoe. “It surprised me-taking a canoe was as comfortable as sleeping on velvet,” Liu recalls.

At his advanced age, Liu sometimes had to use a walking stick when trekking through the jungle, but he never became discouraged. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he concentrated all his efforts on these overseas anthropological ventures. In addition to visiting Eastern Malaysia and Papua New Guinea , he flew to Latin America, South Africa , and East Africa . “My father wanted to convey to the younger generation the message the neither art nor anthropology is as difficult as people think; they are accessible and can be learned,” his son says.

Decades ago, Liu reaped spiritual gains through a shift from electrical engineering to art, and later he obtained even greater inspiration by transferring from art to cultural anthropology. He has never hesitated to pursue what is new and better. Now he wants to bridge the gap between art and anthropology by studying the anthropology of art, a field that has not attracted much attention from the world of academe. “This is the most important thing left for me to deal with in my remaining years,” he says, “As the most delicate element of culture, art should be the sum total of customs, wisdom, ethics, and morality.”

In a preface to his latest book he writes: “My experience of teaching has been that beginners find it easiest to approach the nature and uniqueness of art through anthropology.” Accordingly, he is now calling for more ethnographical research. “Ethnography is broader and more diverse than cultural anthropology in its research and theoretical spectrum, covering religions, aesthetic standards, morality, and ethics,” he maintains. “At the same time, it outlines the true picture of the history of culture and the spirit of man from a macroscopic perspective. Archaeologists unearth cultural relics, while ethno-graphists interpret the stories of cultures.”

At the ripe old age of eighty-five, Liu still finds field surveys far more interesting than just traveling for the sake of it. “One always derives so much inspiration, even if there are no academic gains,”he says.

Liu likes to say of Emest Hemingway that the Nobel laureate’s body might have grown old, but to the end his eyes continued to shine with the message: “keep going! “ The same is true of him. When asked what his favorite activity is, Liu replies: “Exploration. Always going somewhere that no one else has ever seen. I do that, and I feel peace.”

Reprinted from Free China Review,

August, 1997