A Symphonic Poem of Brush, Ink and Lines Monochrome Ink Paintings

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F053 李轂摩---溫馨 國畫 27x27cm 2011 F053 李轂摩---溫馨 國畫 27x27cm 2011

Ku-mo Lee, originally named Kuo-mo, was born into a rural family in Caotun Township, Nantou County. From a cowherd boy to a monochrome ink painting master in the art landscape in Taiwan, the path he took to become a painter is apprenticeship and self-exploration, an approach which is poles apart from the modern academy education. However, this also explains how his works can avoid the restraint of schools and theories and establish a one-of-a-kind style while innovatively preserving the traditional elements.


 Ku-mo Lee could be said to be a successor to the tradition of Chinese ink paintings with the nourishment from the artistic soil of Taiwan. His works and his personality demonstrate a combination of the rustic charm of a farmer and the educated elegance of a literatus. Confucius said:"When substance overshadows refinement, it is churlish. When refinement overshadows substance, it is pedantry. A well-balanced mixture of both will result in gentleman-liness." Ku-mo Lee impresses people with this gentleman-liness. The artistic conception of his works is always tranquil and unassuming, imbued with comforting peacefulness.   

 What led Lee to choose ink and wash painting as the sole unyielding pursuit of life? The answer may be found in his early life. Lee was born in the early Restoration period of Taiwan. Due to the hardship of that time, he could not afford to continue his education. The aesthetic beauty of folk arts and traditional culture were his direct source of artistic input. Thus it is natural that he picked up ink and wash painting and started to educate himself about the art. There is a Taiwanese folk saying: “If you do ten things at the same time, nine will fail.” Lee deems this as the utmost truth and since he already dedicated himself in ink painting, then there is no return and he could only stride on.

 Although his works take deep root in tradition, as a profound thinker who emphasizes coherent rationale, he can also reveal the changing of times through the thoughts and feelings he put into his works. He was born in the countryside of Caotun Township and spent his childhood and adolescent years there. Until now he still lives in on his “Mountainside Farm” in the rural area of Caotun. His life is tightly intertwined with Taiwanese rural lives and he has used this as the source of inspiration to his production. These works all demonstrate a vivid liveliness while being ingenious and thought-provoking.  

 His most renowned works are also those densely saturated with pastoral themes—farmers planting rice seedlings, flock of chickens spreading across a banana orchard pecking for food, buffalo dragged to the market by a trader, or even villagers gathering in front of a temple watching an open-air theatre performance—their familiar friendliness is likely to provoke emotional responses in viewers.

 When one looks at his painting, it is as though the viewer is looking into a symphonic poem of brush, ink and lines. The artist blends his observation and experiences of the external environment with his inner thoughts and feelings. With his refined application of ink lines and strokes, Lee composed a symphonic poem which leaves a unforgettable impression and strikes a harmonious balance of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal. Even for those who are not connoisseurs, they can also understand the delightful overtone of his works. As the works of ancient poet Bai Ju-yi was said to be clear and smooth by his contemporaries and even old grannies could understand them, Ku-mo Lee’s paintings also possess the same charm in a different art form.

 However, because of this, he is often categorized as a pastoral or folk artist. Even so, these two terms, pastoral and folk, indeed fall short of putting his works in a nut shell. Be it artistic themes or forms of presentation, the world created by Ku-mo Lee’s ink and brush is too vast to be contained.  

 The source of his artistic inspiration not only comes from his rural life but also from massive reading of classic literature and his experiences in hard times. That’s the reason why he can promote earthly subjects to the level of artistic beauty. His brush and ink skills together with an in-depth understanding of calligraphy and painting make him almost like a modern counterpart of the ancient scholar-painter, showing a combination of the virtues in his works and character.

In his works, calligraphy and painting not only merge together but also bring out the best of each other, which again is one of the characteristics of his works. Lee employs calligraphic brush stroke in his painting, and further creates his own style of calligraphy through the aesthetics of painting. This has become scenery in visual composition. Furthermore, the inscriptions full of witty philosophy of daily life are quite Zen-like. It either makes you clap your hands for its brilliance or brings out a knowing smile. Therefore, he is a well-loved painter by the general public. He became a professional and active artist at a very young age and ever since has established himself as one of the iconic figures in the ink painting field of Taiwan. 

An apprentice on his way to greatness

Lee stands as an excellent example of successful self-education. After he graduated from Caotun Junior High School, circumstances prohibited him from continuing his education. He studied after folk artist Ching-tan Yu for expressional portrait and spent three years with Ching-shan Hsia for fine-style portrait and landscape painting. And the rest was left to self-exploration. He learned from his peers and predecessors and find answers in ancient literature and classics. Daily experiences were his main source of inspiration. It could be an old buffalo, a leaf of green banana, the squawking sound of a rooster, and a night listening to the croaking frogs. He opened up his senses to learn. Every part of daily life is an inspiration and realization. This is the artist’s secret to learn from nature.    

These experiences are quite similar to those of Pai-shih Chi in the early Republican era—from a cowherd boy to an artisan then a renowned painter in both China and Western World. Pai-shih Chi rejected the stubborn convention to stick to the old ways and selected his subjects from daily life. Therefore he could remove the mundanity, created fascination with simple strokes, and become the great master in the history of painting. So is Lee. He started his career with a simple interest in painting and would like to learn a bread-winning skill. However, here came this unexpected success. With his talent and hard work, he eventually became a rare all-rounder who can master painting, calligraphy and seal cutting. 

Mastering calligraphy and painting, a one-of-a-kind artist

His works reflect the contemporary atmosphere while possessing the free spirit of traditional literati and the artistic elegance of their mind. Applying his unique calligraphy style onto painting is one of the characteristics of his works. After Song and Yuan Dynasty, people have come to recognize that calligraphy and painting share to same origin. Applying calligraphic techniques on painting gradually became a feature of traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings. Later on this art even went further, becoming a comprehensive combination of poetry, calligraphy, painting, seal, and even the character of both the painting and its creator. Then the unique aesthetic system of traditional Chinese ink painting was established. In other words, when one looks at an artist’s works, you evaluate the techniques and go further to study the overall presentation of one’s disposition. The artist’s character, erudition, talent, and philosophy all lead to how his works would be perceived by people.

However, only few among the modern ink painting artists meet the criteria. That said, it is Ku-mo Lee, a self-educated artist, who inherit that aesthetic standard. He has an outstanding command of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal and goes further to create a new form of artistic expression—the application of calligraphic techniques on painting. Works like Every day is a Good Day and A Frog in the Well have brought the expressiveness of Chinese pictograph to the most fantastic level.

The ancient Chinese people used brush as writing tool; therefore, it is quite unavoidable that calligraphic writing would be borrowed by painting. In Lee’s case, he learned painting first and then for the need of inscription, he went back to study calligraphy. In this reversed approach, his calligraphy in turn takes on the structural style and aesthetic pattern of painting.

In a row of words or just one single word, the viewer can observe the variation of sizes, density and the thickness of lines and ink. The power of each stroke runs free without restraint and shows dramatic changes in flowing elegance. Its strong rhythm echoes that of the painting. As calligraphy and painting work with each other, it’s hard to find traces of artificial pretension. This leads to his unique charm and is both iconic and artistic. No imitation can achieve this. It could be safely put that all ink painters spend their lifetime pursuing that goal. Just for that, Lee could be said to be a prominent figure and representative icon in the history of ink art in Taiwan.  

Tradition and innovation, well-loved by all

Lee stayed with Ching-shan Hsia during his apprenticeship period. He learned not only the techniques but also Hsia’s attitude toward life as well as philosophy. That was the time when he encountered Buddhism. Later, he was constantly exposed to traditional Confucian and Tao cultures while enjoying literatus essays and classic poetry. Influences of these philosophies are demonstrated in his works. Lee’s rustic country life is imbued with the spiritual character of traditional Chinese elite. That’s the reason why in his works, sometimes you see a scholar encouraging people to study hard and then you also have a commoner teasing himself. There are times when you see a learned man expressing his feelings or a Zen monk giving a knowing smile of Buddha twirling a flower.

 Lee also learned from the once dominant modern painting in the 50s and 60s. He only picked up the spirit of the movement as he refused to produce paintings only he could understand. The idea is simple: a musician composes songs because desiring an audience. In the same manner, a painter creates works out of a desire to show them to people. It doesn’t mean that you could not learn from different styles, structure and employment of colors. This explains why we can find untraditional picture composition and sketch techniques. There are traces of the influence from modern arts.

One sees these multiple aspects in Lee’s works, and they all stand for Ku-mo Lee. He is the candid and simple country boy who brush flows at his will. He is also the cultured gentleman who likes to play with words and live a free, carefree lifestyle. The subjects of his works vary from spiritual landscape to countryside. They convey the delightful conception of scholar painting without being rigid. They exude the liveliness of folk art without being shabby. And this again reminds us of Pai-shih Chi, an example of the natural combination of a learned man’s virtues and a farmer’s rustic nature. In the art circle of Taiwan, Lee doubtlessly is the one who successfully merges the two.

A Utopia in his works

Although Lee has been living in the countryside for years, he is not an indifferent hermit. In addition to his art production, his earnest dedication in the promotion of art education and local charity work is always present. Lee is an artist who deeply cares about his native land and loves it.

 At the end of 1975, together with more than ten painters from Nantou region, Ku-mo Lee decided to establish Nantou County Art Association. All the members recommended Lee to be the first Director of the Association. He served that position for 12 years as a result of term renewal. He is a devoted art advocator in Nantou County. Ever since, various activities held by the Association as well as juror invitations of art exhibitions of different places followed one after another. 

Most of event preparation took place in his house. Artists and cultural workers came and went and they loved to visit Lee. Lee and his wife are famous for their hospitality. Ms. Mei-yin Yeh’s mouthwatering cooking left a lingering impression on their guests who would be craving for the taste years after their visits. Although Lee has retired from many positions and no longer hosts many titles, he still has visitors streaming into his door and constant exhibition invitation, as if “Mountainside Farm” is an art center in the country. Its owner would like to live a quiet and uninterrupted life but is not granted that privilege.

Lee always maintains his calm in the face of the hustle and bustle of mundane affairs. This tells us Utopia is not an external condition but internal quest. With this realization, the viewer can easily experience that ideal world in artist’s mind.

This is the charm of ink painting. It’s a metaphorical expression by ink and brush, an epitome of the artist’s spirit and vision. Lee’s works always convey a sense of modesty and tranquility. Maybe this can explain why his works are so well-loved by the public. In this busy society, everyone desires that wonderful land of peace and easy. There is no doubt that for many people, Ku-mo Lee’s works offer them the place where they can obtain the peace of mind.