There’s a privileged space between Leo Shih’s eyes and his collection. Motion sensitive aesthetic neurons go off easily, so you must proceed with caution. But it’s clearly a comfort zone, and once you’re in, it’s a warm and welcoming place.
A hardware inventor and trader based in Taichung, Taiwan’s third largest city, Shih began collecting in the 1990s. At that time, the market for “classic” Taiwanese oil paintings was experiencing a bubble, while on the mainland prices for 20th-century art had only just been cleared for takeoff. A self-educated collector, Shih is primarily interested in a particular moment in history, focusing on the first generation of Chinese oil painters who traveled to Europe on work-study programs in the 1920s. As he explained in a phone interview, China and the West have interacted culturally, commercially and politically for 5,000 years. “In terms of art, China has had a greater influence on the West,” he remarks. “But in the 20th century, a group of gifted Chinese artists—Fang Junbi, Lin Fengmian, Xu Beihong, Sanyu, Ding Yanyong, Yun Gee, Fu Baoshi and more—were exposed to Western modernism in Paris, London and Tokyo. This was the first time in modern history that Western art had a major influence on China.”
It is this generation that Shih considers to be the “masters,” not just as great artists but also as teachers who played key roles in Chinese art institutions in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing and Hangzhou. His favorite among them is Sanyu (1901–1966), and he recites the now clichéd soubriquet for the artist, “the Chinese Matisse,” but he is quick to point out that this hybrid description may well have been tinged with some traces of exoticism in both France and China in the 1930s. Such an acute cross-cultural and historical awareness is an attribute that many collectors today lack.
Shih’s taste is backed up by an impressive visual and factual memory. He is fond of the early works of Yan Wenliang (1893–1988), a “master” who was born in Suzhou, trained in Paris, and returned to China to teach. But Shih’s praise for Yan is qualified: he feels that, during Yan’s most productive and experimental period on the mainland in the 1950s and early 1960s, “he ended up being too complex; instead of painting ten different paintings, he painted the same canvas ten times.”
The reason that many of these artists have been overlooked over the past half-century is due to historical circumstance. Shih chronicles how in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the painters were just returning to China from their travels, the onset of an artistic renaissance was interrupted by the Japanese invasion, World War II and the civil war that culminated in the Communist triumph on the mainland and the Republic of China’s retreat to Taiwan in the late 1940s. During the Cultural Revolution, the new People’s Republic returned the “favor” to those artists who had optimistically chosen to remain in China under the Communist regime with a vengeance. In the troubled cultural climate, many artists preemptively destroyed their works, sensing that they would become the targets of campaigns against the “Four Olds”—customs, culture, habits and ideas—and against other symptoms of Western bourgeois liberalism. Thus a bitter cloud of martyrdom hangs over these “masters,” as it does on this period in Chinese history.
Regarding the present-day fate of these artists, Shih makes the penetrating observation that mainland authorities have continuously ignored, downplayed or “disappeared” many of the achievements of the Republican period from 1911 to 1949—be they artistic, scientific or political—just as Taiwan under the Kuomintang has, until recently, shown a reluctance to acknowledge these same painters. “Chiang Kai-shek said, ‘Artists cause a lot of trouble,’” notes Shih. “He didn’t want to talk about art. He lacked understanding.” Because of this, many of these artists received their first serious recognition abroad.
Shih is adamant about collecting only what he “understands,” but it would be wrong to take such a modest disclosure too literally. He himself cautions that traditional Chinese scroll paintings are fraught with multiple dangers—from authenticity and erudite inscriptions in cursive script to esoteric literati aesthetics—and he also owns works by Korean-born conceptual artist Nam June Paik, graffiti guru Banksy, the notorious Damien Hirst and a recent favorite, the Hong Kong artist Lee Kit, who represented the Special Administrative Region at the Venice Biennale last year.
Shih is also enthusiastic about the Korean artist Haegue Yang, artists from Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Japan, and in particular the photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki and Lang Jingshan. A letter written by Lang when he was 101 years old is one of Shih’s prized possessions—he notes the uniformity of its calligraphy, which does not contain a single mistake.
Shih hesitates to collect young Chinese artists, whom he fears “have too many commercial temptations.” More like movie stars than artists, he says that they are involved in a market-mad charade, and that because of this he “can’t feel their souls [linghun].” Such skepticism also stems from Shih’s knowledge of the pressures imposed upon young artists by auction houses. “Today the auction houses sell 90 percent of the Chinese paintings on the market. They also handle 80 percent of other media,” he says. “The situation is pretty confused.” He is also wary of the fact that many contemporary art stars act more as managers, and, like movie directors, hire people to do their work for them. “They say, ‘If Andy Warhol did that, so can I.’ Only today they charge a lot more for their works than Warhol did when he was mass-producing. Who can afford USD 100,000 for mechanically reproduced art?” he says incredulously.
Rather than exposing a conservative strain in Shih, this observation points to a strong sense of conviction and taste that doesn’t budge easily. “The old masters I collect have a kind of purity that I don’t sense in most artists today. You can put a work by a young artist on the wall and grow tired of it in two months. Then the communication ends. I admire their perfect technique, be it realist or abstract, but I cannot feel their creative energy.” That said, Shih is also at home among the likes of today’s heavyweights such as Cai Guo-Qiang, Xu Bing, Chen Zhen and Gu Wenda, possibly because they are his near contemporaries. While he is friendly with many of these artists, he avoids buying from them directly in an effort to ensure their creative autonomy. “I respect the role that dealers play in the art market,” he says. “If everybody bought works directly from artists, the market would be chaotic, with painters doing works for specific individuals.”
As we conclude our conversation, I ask him bluntly which three works of art in the entire world he would most like to live with. His answer takes the form of a leonine roar; he guffaws: “I can’t answer that question, because I already own them!”
By Don J. Cohn
This article was originally published on ArtAsiaPacific on May/June 2014. This article cannot be edited nor shared to third parties without permission from ArtAsiaPacific.