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Li Keran 李可染 (1907-89)


Li Keran  李可染 (1907-89) Born in Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Ink painter of landscapes, figures, and bulls.  Taught by Lin Fengmian, Huang Binhong, and Qi Baishi.  For most of his career, Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. 



Raised in extreme poverty, Li was fortunate to meet with teachers who recognized his talent and sponsored his training. He studied oil painting, watercolor, and charcoal drawing at the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou.  He relocated to Chongqing during the war years where he established a reputation as a leading ink painter of his generation. Once the Japanese surrendered, Li made his way to Beijing, where he began a pivotal period in his development, studying under two influential painting masters, Huang Binhong and Qi Baishi. After the establishment of Communist rule, when traditional Chinese painting seemed on its way to extinction, Li Keran defended Chinese painting as a “pearl covered in dust.”  He breathed new life into the discredited medium. He took ink painting outdoors and focused on the actual topography of China’s mountains and rivers.  A mild-mannered man, Li Keran mostly steered clear of political tangles prior to the Cultural Revolution.  His fresh approach was recognized as path-breaking, and he was bestowed the rare privilege of exhibiting his paintings in a one-man show, and travelled to East Germany in 1957. He published a number of influential articles in the People’s Daily newspaper, one of which argued for the importance of painstaking hard work to achieve excellence in the creative field.


Li Keran (1907-89)



The political tide turned against Li Keran, when the dark ink tones of his painting fell out of favor.  Under the leadership of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, the Party began pushing artists to adopt a bright red palette to symbolize revolutionary fervor.  Li painted several paintings entirely in bright red, in response to the new requirement; but his paintings were still perceived as too dark and dense.  Stung by criticism, Li Keran painted a series of bull paintings.  These humble animals symbolized good will and loyal service. One 1962 painting featured a stubborn bull, unwilling to be tied up, which some interpreted as an assertion of Li’s independent spirit. During the Cultural Revolution, Li Keran was confined to the same makeshift prison within the Central Academy of Fine Arts as Li Kuchan and Huang Yongyu, among others. He took advantage of long hours when he was required to write confessions or copy Chairman Mao’s sayings to practice his calligraphy. Once he was allowed to return home, he secretly devoted himself to tracing ancient rubbings of calligraphy, the only part of his extensive art collection not confiscated by Red Guards. Based on his diligent study of these ancient script forms, his calligraphy underwent a dramatic transformation, achieving new assurance and power. Once the danger receded, Li resumed painting landscapes in his thick, dark manner.


Li Keran’s commitment to expanding the scope for artistic expression entangled him, sadly, in another bout of political troubles. During the crackdown following the student demonstrations of 1989, his death was hastened by a threatening visit from the security police.  He had a heart attack after he was questioned about a financial donation supporting the hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square.