Interview: Li Yuan-chia's unique photographs

Learn more about the life, work and friendships of one of the most important artists of the 20th century from Nick Sawyer, co-founder of the Li Yuan-chia Foundation.

Interview: Li Yuan-chia's unique photographs

What can you tell us about the Whitworth Exhibition, Li Yuan-chia: Unique Photographs?

This exhibition evidences the Whitworth’s recognition of the value to the public of Li Yuan-chia’s work. As well as several works never exhibited before, previously unseen material from the artist’s archive will be displayed.  Selected by Senior Curator Mary Griffiths and purchased from the LYC Foundation in 2010 with support from a private donor, five of this category were included in the Whitworth’s The Land Between Us exhibition in the same year. [When the artist made them, only a few circulated, either as gifts to friends or purchased by private collectors].

What photographs from Artimage’s collection will be featured in the exhibition? 

The Artimage selection includes examples from the same series but several of those to be displayed have never before been seen in public. The hand-coloured prints range from those with overall colour toning, to ones with very subtle and detailed multi-tones. Sometimes the references are quite unambiguous, such as a rose being struck by an axe, and at other times quite abstract and less obvious, such as a rough-hewn standing wood piece with balaclava, or close-up of a dry-stone wall with added arrangement of wooden logs. As already remarked (Speech Acts exhibition, Manchester Art Gallery) these works ‘speak’ to us. Some could be called self-portraits, except that the artist’s face is seldom if ever revealed. Head is either bowed, covered or turned away. However uncomfortable such images may appear, the artist’s colouring is always very beautifully produced.

The photographs on show are mostly set in autumn and winter and are dated from the last years of the artist’s life. What is the significance of these photographs?

These works represent significant new direction for Li who (according to his diary entries) had up till then been searching in vain for the colouring, tone and texture he wanted. As a result, application of colour to photo print surfaces, by brush, rather than darkroom manipulations, was a technique he had to learn anew. Before long the result was an outpouring of new work during the last two years of his life.

These works are beautiful, exquisite even, as sensory experience, as well as being at times shocking because of the references they make. Their colouring is reminiscent, perhaps, of his early Taipei-period watercolours, equally beautiful but without the gaiety. In essence they might be compared to Li’s abstract white monochrome set embossed prints made in Bologna 1966, in which the traumas of childhood displacement are represented ‘pictographically’. 

Li yuan-chia was one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and was a founding father of chinese abstract painting. Why is an exhibition like this important?

I do not think Li Yuan-chia was much interested in accolades or prizes. To positioning him at a pinnacle, as being part of an elite, I think overlooks the significance in his history of collaboration with his peers, not forgetting the encouragements received from unsung mentors, and his participation in group efforts, such as Tong Fang in Taipei, and Punto, in Italy. Of course he was a most exceptional talent, a universal artist, as he has sometimes been described. As the poet Michael Hamburger said, when referring to those most creative periods of history, ‘art was looked for in the work made, not in the person of the maker’. [Agenda. Spring 1978]. This exhibition is important because it makes his work accessible and might encourage visitors who have never thought of making art themselves to start doing so. It is certainly most appropriate that the legacy of an artist who was so inclusive in his activities should stay in the public domain. It is also sets the best example of a public institution making use of works in its possession for the public’s enrichment. Much credit is due to Curator Mary Griffiths and her team for making this exhibition possible.

You met and became a friend of li’s in 1965. What was he like as a person? 

David Medalla introduced me to Li Yuan-chia and his work at Signals Gallery. Later, 1967, employed by the Lisson assisting their cabinet-maker Brenan Chamberlain, I was fortunate to work alongside him manufacturing his Cosmagnetic Multiples. During this time, I witnessed his good-nature and superb technical skill.  Despite his scant English, he was a most effective communicator. His sociability (and generosity) became further apparent on a visit with me to my parents’ home in Cumbria (then called Cumberland). During this time, his social manner endeared him to several of our neighbours, some of them becoming lifelong close friends. These included artists EJ Hooper, Winifred Nicholson, Audrey Barker, and Joanna Matthews. Li had fruitful interaction with Joanna’s husband Jimmy, who has specialist printing expertise. I came to realise that such sociability was not just for his hosts’ benefit but evidenced his indiscriminate attitude to everyone he met. After the LYC Museum closed (1983) and he was working intensively on new pieces, he welcomed and benefited from friends’ feed-back, including from a neighbour he would meet on the road enquiring about the progress of his work. If necessary, he stood his ground. Through his natural sociability, Li cultivated over the years a very wide network of contacts. Paying a visit to him on one occasion, after the LYC Museum had closed, I was introduced to an unfamiliar face sitting having tea in the kitchen. Asking if he was local, I was surprised to learn that Li’s guest lived in Margate, Kent but worked on the overnight Royal Mail train to Glasgow and sometimes dropped in to see Li. 

After his travels through Taiwan and Bologna, why do you think he chose to settle in Cumbria, England, in a house next to Hadrian’s Wall?  

As well as the places you mention, Li had also journeyed through different parts of China after fleeing on foot with his school during the Sino-Japanese conflict. His move to Cumbria was not planned but opportunist, as was his arrival in London. Before purchasing Bankside, the small farm house and buildings overlying Hadrian’s Wall where he opened the LYC Museum, my parents had made available an upper floor living/studio space within the buildings, where he lived for two years (1968-71). Boothby, our family home, is cluster of dwellings, originally a medieval warlord’s hall, inhabited by weavers’ families in the early 19th century and later extended for agricultural use. During these two years Li mounted more than one in-house exhibition of his work, including printing his own catalogues, whilst also showing at the Lisson Gallery. He supplemented any income he might have had through sale of works by painting and decorating, and gardening jobs in the area. On one such occasion, having been contracted by Winifred Nicholson (by this time a very good friend) to tidy up her property Bankside in readiness for sale, Li got the idea of buying it himself and founding a museum.

I remember first time Mrs. Winifred.  take me came here to cutting the grass.  to make nice here and money easy to sale Bankside.  [.  .  .  .]

the idea is.

I like make a museum or arts centre here, the place was not so bad.  only the house is too bad condition.  but I can re-build .  .  .

bring else people all link together.  thought out the world.  come to here.  bankside Lyc museum.  to learn it.  to teach it.  make a real good friends it,  and to feel like a home.  a real warmthly home.  love each other.  to trying to understand each other,  (your enemy too)    
[copyright John Rylands Library]

The joyful tone of his diary entries and poems, during his first two years in Cumbria suggests that he found the Borders much to his liking. He became very productive, probably more than he had been in London. His exhibitions at Boothby were attracting a lot of interest from people in the area, and soon after, from further afield. He kept contacts with artists and poets he had met in London. Richard Demarco in Edinburgh also provided shift in gravity away from London, with significant new contacts coming from that direction. Friends from Bologna were even making the journey to see him.

References from his diaries and random notes (now held at John Rylands Library Archive, Manchester) suggest that his vision was for a place where people could meet and explore their latent creativity, rather than be passive spectators. He had been involved in community enterprises before, starting in Taipei with the shared studio spaces of the Tong Fang group, and later in Bologna where furniture designer Dino Gavina provided studio spaces for artists in his furniture factory in San Lazzaro. The artist Antonio Calderara, another friend of Li and member of the Punto group, later founded a public arts space called the Fondazione Calderara, in Vacciago, Lago d’Orta, which still flourishes today. It is possible that this influenced Li’s idea for the LYC Museum. 

Have Li Yuan-chia’s artworks been licensed for any commercial uses, and is this important for the Foundation?

The Foundation has given licensing consent for academic research, a BBC documentary film and exhibition-related usage but not so far for any merchandising. Unfortunately, images of Li Yuan-chia’s works have several times been used without the Foundation’s prior authorisation. 

With thanks to Nick Sawyer and the Li Yuan-chia Foundation.

Browse Li Yuan-chia's artworks here

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Images: Untitled, 1993-1994 © Estate of Li Yuan-chia. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Phil Gammon