Upcoming Exhibition

Liú Yung-jen: Cruising Alone in Painting


Artist | Liú Yung-jen

Duration | November 19 – December 17, 2022

Artist Talk|November 19, 2022 Sat. 15:00

Venue | Powen Gallery map


The Art of ‘Einfühlung’ (Empathy) and ‘Fernbild’ (‘The distant form of vision): The Artistic Journey of the Maverick Painter Liú Yung-jen


Chen Kuang-Yi

( Ph.D in Contemporary Art History at Universite Paris X Nanterre/ Professor, Dean of the Fine Arts College, National Taiwan University of Art)


The work of Liú Yung-jen often arouses passionate debate between the figurative and the abstract. But this contention is ensued from a misunderstanding of abstraction and figuration as opposites rather than complementary, and a failure to understand the complex relationship between painting and the world it seeks to represent. The concept of 'abstraction' emerged in the German-speaking world at the beginning of the 20th century. Its aim was not to divide the world from its re-presentation but to try to explicate the mental processes by which the artist perceives and portrays the world. Theodor Lipps, a psychologist and philosopher, coined the term ‘Einfühlung (Empathy)’ which he defined as 'the objectification of self-enjoyment', that is, 'feeling oneself into the Other'. This Other is the artist's work. A work that, through meditation and in-depth scrutiny, and by way of the arrangement of shape, colour and line, attains the unification of form, hence the unification of the artist's self. He declares that art is a re-presentation instead of an imitation and that artistic representation is split into the re-presentation of the 'external world' and the 'inner world'. The latter is a self-expression of the spiritual life, where lines and shapes can express pleasure, agony, melancholy and so on through the action of inner thought.


In such manner, the spirit inhabits these forms is a vision that is ‘distant and vast, and of depths unique to the soul.’ Kandinsky, who was fascinated by Lipps' aesthetic theory, particularly ‘intrinsic psychology', proposed the 'inner need' as a principle of artistic creation, and created, by strict definition, the first abstract painting in 1910. Despite the unrecognisable shape and structure of the painting, 'abstraction' was not divorced from the re-presentative function of painting, only that his object of re-presentation could be intrinsic or external, and what mattered was the depth of his vision and the unification of form/self. 'Breathing', a metaphor often employed when Liú talks about his artistic creation, is also an implication of the artist's inner needs using this physiological function of the human body. ‘It is a desire at the fundamental of life, and once one grasps the freeing of the soul through creation, there’s no way to stop creating, just as one cannot live without breathing.’ Breathing is not only a physiological function but also a symbol of life, inducing, at the same time, the analogy of the breath of life the artist breathes into his art, the same way God formed Adam from dust and ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.’ This process of re-presenting the world of the intrinsic and external, which originates from a psychological desire, resides not in the distinguishing between abstraction and figuration, East and West, but exists as a kind of 'life’s’ unification, both of the painter and the painting.


In his book Das Problem der Form in der bildenden Kunst (The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture), published in 1893, the sculptor Hildebrand also proposed another set of contrast between ways of seeing, namely ‘Nahbild’ (the nearby) and ‘Fernbild’(the distant). Since art is not an imitation of nature, this dichotomy is a distinction between nature and art. ‘Nahbild’ is the normal form of vision in life, a way of seeing into the organic nature, while ‘Fernbild’ is the aesthetic perspective, the subjugation of the 'form' of life to the laws of art. ‘Fernbild’ illustrates the artist's unique perspective on the world and the difference between art and life. Although art takes its form from life, even 'realistically', it is purely 'architectonic'. Hildebrand's friend, art theorist Konrad Fiedler, observes the former's body of work and introduces the term 'visualité pure', a discourse on how the painter gives absolute importance to the 'visual' in his work, that he no longer considers solely the presentation of the objects/the Other, but the relationship between the painting and the visual (form).


We can venture a hypothesis that Liú Yung-jen's artistic practice goes through the mental processes of 'Einfühlung' (Empathy) and 'Fernbild' (the distant form of vision). He attempts to 'feel himself' in his works but never is he strayed from the realm of visual re-presentation, only that the re-presentation of the external world is not his intent, but rather, the unification of form on the canvas. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the beautiful but slightly somber greyish blue in Through Infinity 1, the cheerful and luscious orange in Through Infinity 2, and the gleaming and luminous yellow in Through Infinity 3 in the three circular paintings, all come from the painter's perception and sensation of a slice of his life or a corner of the world, and then ' Einfühlung' to these swathes of colour. These vast expanses of colour, painted with brushes of various sizes, are almost 'the Monochrome', and Denys Riout believes that the monochrome between the absolute and the void is 'a re-presentation of a lack of re-presentation, a visibility of the invisible'. Yet because of this void, the paintings imbue strong intention. 


But Liú does not paint in monochrome. He always opens up gaps at the edges or in the centre of his paintings and embeds distinctive forms, such as the series of works developed in the 2010s from the lotus or haystack and evolved in 2021 where the rectangle is formed by the interlacing of half-orange and half-yellow triangles emerged from the black. The form resembles a living organism that changes constantly and recurs in different paintings. Its size and composition, its totality and fragmentation, suggest shifts in perspective. Be it drawing closer or further away, it parallels the perfectionistic cinematography, repeatedly capturing the same scene that fascinates the painter. The tiny, subtle and hazy star-like forms that drift across each painting, seemingly restrained and unobtrusive, but escaping the flat monotony and ornamentation of the tract of colour, open up spatial layers in the painter's consciousness. The reality beneath this simple appearance is all the more intriguing for its simplicity, and for the fact that in addition to the intrinsic and external worlds the artist attempts to re-present, there are layers of meticulous underpainting, an inevitable expression of mediums (various paints, solvents, brushes, canvas, paper, lead, beeswax, etc.), and brush strokes that embraces the interplay between homogeneity and diversity. The painting seems to respond to the action of the painter with the reality of its mediums and the operation of the form itself.


Thus assertation could be made that the painter's ‘singular journey' is derived from an intimate 'Einfühlung' in order to feel the presence of his own life in the painting; and that the painting as the object also sings, debates and even guides the painter's inner perspective with the life of its form, so that this creative process of ‘Fernbild’ becomes a journey in which the painter and the painting validate each other's existence. If you wonder why the painter never grows tired of it, the delightful and ceaseless driving force lies in the pursuit of what Henri Focillon defines as 'style'. 'The dense uniformity/unification of forms that are connected with their compatibility’, and 'style' is always directed towards 'the highest point of affinity between the parts'.