Lee Hua – Artist, Collector

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Lee Hua is a Hong Kong, Shanghai and US based artist. We caught up with him to talk about his art and restoration work, as well as his interest in Shanghainese Art Deco Furniture.

Lee received his first formal art education at the Shanghai School of Fine Arts, just after the Cultural Revolution.

“1978 was the first time we could go back to university, and everybody suddenly applied to go; there were lots of creative people of all different ages. It was much more interesting than the usual environment—this was the first BA degree that we ever had in Communist China.”

Learning from the masters

At university, Lee studied classical European-style painting, but he was also the last private student accepted by master painter Ying Yeping to study classical Chinese landscape painting.  Lee would study with him on weekends; No money was exchanged between student and teacher as people did not have much at the time.

“We would bring our teacher a big fish or a chunk of meat, or maybe a moon cake during the holidays. He was not running a business. It was for enjoyment. That’s why people did so well there. There was no art market so art was much better then. Artists painted for the enjoyment. They weren’t driven by money”.

Lee and Ying maintained a close relationship for 18 years. Ying’s influence on Lee’s approach to art proved lasting. “My teacher told me not to follow him.  Instead, he told me to follow the ancient masters. His reason for this was that if you just followed the teacher you would never come out from under his shadow. His father was an imperial scholar so he was very knowledgeable and he would say that to be an artist, you need technical skill but you also need to enrich yourself. My teacher was able to show me how to enrich myself. He was my bridge to the ancient masters. It was like studying directly from the source.”

Even after Lee moved to the United States in 1985, the two exchanged letters until Ying passed away.

Going west – a change of style

The move to America signalled a change in Lee’s painting. “Until I moved to New York, I had been doing old European-style paintings as well as Chinese landscape paintings but in the U.S. I started doing abstract paintings and I finally felt like myself. I felt like before I had been using other peoples’ voices or dressing up like other people. It was a new thing to me, it was a new way to express myself, and I felt free.”

Though Lee’s later paintings appear simple, his classical training is evident. Some canvases depict bold lines, shapes and colour while others are simply made up of repetitive lines in a single shade of grey ink.

“In traditional Chinese painting we use many tones of grey on the white of the paper to represent the universe. I say that I am writing my painting, not painting it. In my ink paintings, I use one shade of grey only; this follows the rules of calligraphy. My painting is like calligraphy: all the lines and shapes are quite similar and they look quiet, but you have to look carefully.”

Lee has taught art in various institutions including the University of Hong Kong (SPACE) and the National Academy School of Fine Arts and Marymount Manhattan College, both in the States.  As well as teaching, he has exhibited both in the Unites States and China.

Artifacts from a lost era

In recent years, the restoration of several old houses in the former French Concession in Shanghai has become a particular interest of Lee’s.

“I started because I grew up in a building that was built in 1931, a nice pre-war building. Many parts of it had been made in the UK. Back then, we were close to the Bund and the whole area was in the European style. After the Governmental change in the mid 20th Century, many items of furniture, including Art Deco furniture were cheap to buy, when compared to the simplified and poor quality furniture that was being produced at the time.  So people would just use the old furniture that the foreigners had left behind. People did not have much money, so using old furniture was normal while buying new furniture was rare.  We didn’t have an art deco couch because it was stylish; we had it because that’s all we had.”

“When I finally went back to Shanghai, I felt less connected to the place because so much had changed. Because of this I started renovating some houses in order to preserve them. It’s like keeping a small piece of old Shanghai that is familiar to me.”

Lee has become very familiar with the style of Art Deco furniture that is particular to Shanghai and explained how it has gained an identity of its own. “From the 1920s to the 1950s, there were a lot of talented people going to China—mainly Shanghai—and there was a lot of money. So people began importing art deco furniture and also making it. The furniture has now become part of Chinese history by incorporating distinctly Chinese designs.”

Lee began his furniture collection in order to fill the houses he was restoring. As well as furnishing the houses with period furniture, he refurbishes them with materials from that era. “When I was restoring the houses, many old buildings down in the Da Tian Road area were being knocked down, so I would go over to the sites and purchase bricks, tiles, staircases, wood, and other things like that to put into the houses. Old things are usually better.”

An art deco upholstered two-seater sofa made in Shanghai in the 1930s from hong mu wood. Chinese motifs can be seen in the engraved side panel.

“I treat the houses like people—you can’t feed old men McDonald’s just like you can’t put new materials in old houses.”

Having completed most of his restoration projects, Lee aims to continue painting and doing exhibitions, perhaps using the houses he has restored as exhibition spaces or salons.

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