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Li Kuchan 李苦禅 (1898-1983)


Li Kuchan 李苦禪  (1898-1983)  Born in Gaotang County, Shandong province.  Ink painter of bird-and-flower subjects.  Professor at National Art Academy of Hangzhou from 1930-34, professor at Beiping Art School from 1946-49,  Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Art after 1949.



The son of poor farmers, Li Kuchan pulled rickshaws to earn tuition to study painting in Beijing. Although he initially studied Western art methods, he switched to Chinese ink painting after he saw the bird-and-flower painting of Qi Baishi.  Li visited the painter at his home in Beijing and asked to become his private student. Li learned from his mentor how to paint, but he never copied his teacher’s style.  He became known for his paintings of eagles and waterfowl.  He taught at the National Art Academy at Hangzhou alongside Pan Tianshou during the early 1930s. He lived in Beijing when Japanese soldiers occupied the city.  In 1946, he became professor at the Beiping Art School. After the Communists unified the country, he was appointed professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, but his career languished, mostly because his painting style was considered outdated.  He was consigned to menial jobs.  He famously appealed to Chairman Mao himself, whom he had known briefly during their student days.  Mao responded to the artist’s handwritten letter by sending a representative to investigate Li’s situation. Following this high-level intervention, Li’s position within the academy became marginally better, but doubts about his political reliability continued. During the early 1960s, he was allowed to teach painting classes again. Students enjoyed watching him paint.  Energetic and theatrical, he moved the brush across the paper with great expressiveness. He practiced Peking Opera and martial arts during his spare time. The graceful choreography of these routines seemed transferred to his brushwork.


Li Kuchan was the first painter targeted as a Reactionary Academic Authority at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1966.  He was separated from his family and jailed inside the academy with other senior professors. Once the lights were turned out for the night, Kuchan silently moved his arms and legs through a series of martial arts poses.  The seventy-year old artist could still touch his head to his knees. He considered these elegant movements approximates for painting. Amid his daily chores, Li Kuchan delighted his fellow inmates with abbreviated Peking Opera performances, wielding the broomstick, as if it were a stage prop. Once he was beaten daily for approximately a week with a military belt, because he refused to “report crimes.” Despite lashings that made his head bleed profusely, the only name of a “counter-revolutionary” that Li Kuchan was willing to report was “Wo [I].” Li Kuchan had performed a similar “dance” of resistance, when Japanese soldiers beat him in prison thirty years before. As a penniless work-study student at Beijing University, he had borne frigid temperatures without a coat and scraped together art supplies by collecting` discarded pencil stubs.  His “iron-like” physical constitution proved a reliable ally in each test of will.


Li Kuchan (1898-1983),
performing marital arts



During the final stages of the Cultural Revolution, Li Kuchan found opportunities to secretly paint old eagles to evoke the resilient, self-possessed character of senior-generation intellectuals whose talents had been wasted by repeated political campaigns. From 1979 until his heart attack in 1983, he created huge murals of bird and flower subjects.  He was by then in his eighties; but he approached painting like an artist at the peak of his abilities, tackling huge expanses of paper with the vigor and speed of a much younger man.