A prolific painter, dancer, choreographer, and composer, Lalan was a pioneering figure of l’art synthèse, or integrated art, whose works embodied the abstract spirit of an era where Western influences fused with Eastern philosophies. On the occasion of her centennial, a major retrospective at Asia Society Hong Kong Center dives into Lalan’s legacy, featuring more than 30 paintings including rare works shown in public for the first time.
TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGES: Courtesy of Asia Society Hong Kong Center
“Lalan was innovative, strong-minded and avant-garde. I deeply respect her lifelong passion in art, music and dance, as well as her commitment representing the authentic self through her paintings and integrated art forms,” says Catherine Kwai on Xie Jing-lan (謝景蘭, 1921–1995), better known as Lalan.
“Extended Figure: The Art and Inspiration of Lalan”, a major retrospective of the pioneering Chinese female artist at Asia Society Hong Kong Center (ASHK), celebrates the artist’s centennial this year. Showcasing more than 30 paintings and archival material from her cross-disciplinary career, the exhibition traces the artist’s early experimentations and introspection in her art-making practice through to her later period in painting where the artist’s distinct visual vocabulary reaches maturity. “With this exhibition, we try to focus on Lalan, her artistic inspirations and the ideas behind her work,” explains Doris Poon, co-curator of the show. From her early elusive universe made up of calligraphic signs and sombre hues, through to her cosmological expressions and the final cascades of abstract landscapes, the artist’s extensive oeuvre of oils, mixed media and scroll paintings spanning more than three decades speak to an exceptional creative mastermind.
Having orchestrated two solo exhibitions of Lalan at her own gallery, Kwai Fung Hin Gallery, in 2016 and 2020 respectively, Kwai, as Director of Kwai Fung Foundation and Lalan Archive, and the exhibition supporter for “Extended Figure” plays a key role in the mounting of this retrospective. But even she was frank in pointing out the immense difficulty the curatorial team of ASHK faced given the lack of research and accessible information on Lalan. “This is a very challenging artist. Usually when we present an artist, it’s easy to find the roots, the origin. But not with her. In the past seven years, my team and I have devoted ourselves to collect information about her life story and artistic philosophy bit by bit,” says Kwai.
While Lalan’s works are picking up traction in the art market, the artist remains largely unrecognised or under appreciated by the general public. “Extended Figure” seeks to bridge this gap. The exhibition also celebrates ASHK’s own 30th anniversary and marks the fourth in ASHK’s 20th Century Chinese Female Artist Series—which in previous iterations have featured Irene Chou, Pan Yu-liang and Fang Zhaoling.
“For ASHK, our mission is to promote the mutual understanding between Asia and the world. And we would like to reclaim some untold stories and address the artistic significance of the underrepresented artists. People tend to know Lalan as the painter’s former wife, so we hope the exhibition can deepen the public’s understanding about Lalan,” says Poon.
Born in Guiyang, Guizhou province, China, in 1921 into an elite family of intellectuals—her father a literati who mastered music, chess, calligraphy and painting, and her mother descended from a family of scholars—Lalan’s sensibility for the arts and music was cultivated from a young age. A gifted musician and dancer, she enrolled into Hangzhou’s National College of Art (currently China Academy of Art) at the age of 14, which was helmed at the time by Lin Fengmian, one of the first Chinese artists to study in France.
In 1948, Lalan found herself on board André Lebon with then-husband Zao Wou-Ki, cruising their way to what would later become their permanent home. The young couple arrived in Paris against a backdrop of post-war recovery, which was brimming with creative talents from around the world here to make their mark. They embraced the Parisian cultural scene, settling in a studio on Rue du Moulin-Vert, attending concerts, museum exhibitions and befriending artists such as Sanyu, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu and poet Henri Michaux.
During that period, the art community of Paris was captivated by Art Informel, a term coined by French art critic Michel Tapié to describe a rising trend in abstract painting that advocated for a highly gestural and almost improvisatory technique. It renunciated the traditional art-making process, ridding it of planned compositions, sketches, and precision, and instead focused on the spontaneity of gestures and the authentic expression of the artists’ sensibilities. This preference for spontaneity found itself directed eastwards, and found common ground with traditional Chinese philosophy and calligraphy practices, which favour process over controlled results. In turn, this drew the interest of a generation of Sino-French artists, Lalan being one of them, who contributed to an interesting period of cultural exchange between East and West.
As one of the few female figures of the 20th century who is remembered for forging a career in the arts, Lalan was known for her boundary-breaking art form known as integrated art—which she called l’art synthèse—synthesising aspects of her talents in painting, music and modern dance into one. With a solid knowledge and foundation in the arts, her ability to blend both Eastern aesthetic and Western abstraction came naturally to her. She was among the first Chinese female artists to effortlessly fuse her multi-disciplinary talents into her oeuvre, breaking down the boundaries between art forms.
Lalan’s first foray into painting happened after her marriage with Zao ended in 1957, when the artist was well into her 30s. She began by incorporating previous learnings in electronic music and dance into her painting compositions. After she married sculptor and musician Marcel Van Thienen (and also decided to change her name from “Lanlan” to “Lalan”) her career as a painter truly began to take off. A daring and independent soul, Lalan didn’t shy away from pursuing her dreams and passions—and her paintings were a clear reflection of her character. Early paintings, such as Untitled (1959–60), were constructed with opaque sweeps of colours and impulsive gestures. Lalan never created sketches for her paintings, instead she improvised instinctively in a way similar to her dance performances. Lalan once said, “I perceived modernism in painting from the works of my ex-husband. Not until I took off [the] Muse’s outer coat, did I realise that my life and painting would be forever entwined.” (Thompson Sophy, Lalan, 1999).
In the mid-1960s she devoted most of her time exploring other mediums and her musical career, during which she created an impressive profile by composing for dance performances, and even worked with French New Wave director, Chris Marker, to create soundtracks for his short films and documentaries. Lalan founded an electronic music studio with Van Thienen in the laundry room of his parents’ home shortly after they married, and joined an electronic music research group founded by Pierre Schaeffer, an influential figure in modern music who was known for pioneering the radical musique concrète genre.
While maintaining a highly gestural and expressive style, Lalan was also highly influenced by traditional Chinese landscape paintings, shan shui, of the Southern Song dynasty, which are characterised by strong Taoist philosophy and tranquil aesthetics inspired by nature. Such influence is epitomised in Lierre, roc et la lune (Ivy, Rock and the Moon) (1969), a two-and-a-half-metre tall work on paper featuring a moon motif and a mountainous silouhette depicted in precise lines. There is a faint reference to the “corner lanscape” technique of Southern Song dynasty landscapes before descending into mysterious strokes of green towards the bottom. The depiction of the sun, moon and mountain landscape would go on to become emblematic motifs of Lalan’s works in the 1970s.
Lalan was an artist who continuously sought to evolve her style and technique. While the art scene in France blossomed with explorations of new contemporary mediums such as installations, video and conceptual art, Lalan remained true to her canvas. She incorporated her study of Taoist philosophy into her compositions and took painting as her major form of expression for manifesting her spirituality and vision. Known as “inner landscapes”, the paintings she created in the 1970s involved vague depictions of topographical elements that are almost impossible to identify at first glance. In addition to the use of softer colours of ochre, ivory and soft blue, these elements do not amalgamate into a discernible scene, but rather, they tread the subliminal line between the imaginary and reality. This aesthetic informs works such as Rochers, Rochers, mes frères, je voussalue (Rocks, Rocks, My Brothers, I Salute You) (1974) and Sur le passage haut (On the High Pass) (1979), both of which plays with spareness in composition and exudes an almost meditative quality with a distinctive Eastern characteristic.
Later, in the 1980s, Lalan returned to the realm of pure abstraction, moving entirely away from figurative elements. In Le Billet Vert pour les Écologistes (The Green Bank Note for the Ecologists) (1987)—a painting loaned from the artist’s family’s collection and shown for the first time in public. Unlike in her earlier works, the lines in this painting appear much lighter, barely visible through layers of soft yellow and green. As they coil and progress through the canvas, the faint lines seem to have a mind of their own, choreographing their own performance, as if Lalan was unconsciously manifesting the exploration of her dance movements on canvas.
“Over 60 years of age, she continued to create larger than life paintings,” says Kwai. At the same time, the artist’s practice of qigong, allowed an immense control over the energy she devotes in her works. Often reaching two metres in height, her paintings burst with movement and gestural forms, possessing strokes of colours that demanded a mastery in control and physical strength that seemed near impossible from a woman of her petite frame. As Kwai notes, “There’s a lot of emotion, lots of energy. I don’t know where she gets it. She may seem delicate but she’s so determined, and extremely dedicated. It seems there’s no fear in her.” Lalan was as much a musician and a dancer as she was a painter at that point, having found freedom and confidence in her expression.
One of Lalan’s last paintings created before her untimely death in a car accident in 1995 portrays the idyllic environment of Bormes-les-Mimosas, the region of France in which Lalan and Van Tienen lived. La révolte des mimosas (The Revolt of the Mimosa) (1994) captured the vibrant palette of the humid region, the foliage represented in an intense shade of green, while the delicate mauve of the lilacs and the blossoming of yellow mimosas came in gestural splashes of paint.
The name of the exhibition, “Extended Figure”, taken from one of Lalan’s earlier works not shown in this exhibition, not only captures the essence of the artist’s approach towards the arts, it also signifies one of the few exceptional, self-assured female artists who broke through cultural and social boundaries to develop an authentic identity in her career. Lalan’s paintings are, indeed, forms and extensions of her own self. Her intuitive artistic vision, and the freedom of self-expression she continually sought after inspired generations of spectators, myself included, who are fortunate enough to find their way to her work.