The Imaginarium of Luis Chan
Iconic Hong Kong artist Luis Chan’s fantastic beasts and how he found them
Resembling illustrations from a half-remembered but much-loved book of fairy tales, the paintings that cemented Luis Chan’s place as a legend of Hong Kong contemporary art arose from a technique he developed to harness his subconscious mind. Strange creatures and kaleidoscopic characters blossom from arbitrary smears of ink, floating serenely on paper and blending into each other like mirages — their dreamlike quality a reflection of Chan’s rich inner world.
Chan’s fascination with the everyday threaded his artistic career, which began in the 1920s and continued until his death in 1995. Born in 1905 in Panama, Chan moved with his family to Hong Kong five years later. He spent the rest of his life in the city, watching it change and devoting his life to making art that reflected those transformations.
Chan began as a realist painter in the English style, capturing day-to-day scenes around Hong Kong with such verve and skill that he became known as the ‘King of Watercolour’ and was considered one of the ‘Three Masters’ of Hong Kong painting alongside Li Bing and Yu Ben. Collectors of his early works included Sir Andrew Caldecott, then-governor of Hong Kong, but Chan remained modest and unpretentious, focused only on his passion for art. He was known for his all-consuming desire to learn as much as he could about art, subscribing to art magazines and surrounding himself with a community of artists from diverse backgrounds. Not only was he a member of Hong Kong’s prestigious non-Chinese art society, the Hong Kong Art Club — eventually becoming chairman — he also founded the Chinese Contemporary Artists’ Guild in the hopes that Chinese artists would find their place in the contemporary art world.
It was this open-minded approach to art and thirst for self-improvement that made him unique among his peers during the experimental art period of the 1960s. Despite being in his 50s, Chan was able to make the transition from realist painting to a diverse range of genres including abstract art similar to action painting and Matisse-inspired collages, before honing the magical realism that would become his signature.
Though the style of his paintings shifted dramatically, Chan continued to take inspiration from daily life. The fish swimming in restaurant aquariums, the birds callings out from their cages shops — everything he observed on his daily walks made appearances in his paintings, transformed into otherworldly creatures. Consider the luminous fairy-tale subjects in Untitled (Golden-haired Girl with Bird and Beasts), with their hazy, surreal qualities. A lovely and rare example of Chan’s early fantastical work, the painting fills the viewer with the kind of childlike anticipation that might accompany a bedtime story. Is the golden-haired girl a captive or an adventurer? Are we at the beginning, the middle or the end of the story? Chan’s genius lay in his ability to inspire a multitude of narratives through a psychedelic language that could be understood by everyone.
In 1984, Chan was quoted as saying ‘Above all else, art has to stimulate the imagination.’ Although his paintings have their origins as random marks on paper, his dreams emerged to inspire our own.
Text / Maloy Luakin