TAIPEI (The China Post) – When discussing the painter Danfeng Liang, we must go back to Denmark, 43 years ago, to discuss her life’s signature journey.
In Copenhagen, Danfeng Liang encountered the melancholic teen, Martin Torres, in a restaurant; he was sitting alone, so she approached him for a conversation and he opened up to her, complaining that this generation’s youth viewed the world coldly.
The year was 1975, the Vietnam War had just concluded under a wave of anti-war protest while the Iron Curtain that separated the East and the West was still persisting.
Danfeng Liang drew a sketch for the young Torres with the words “I worry for the people of today, they do not care for the world.”
Torres states that he kept the sketch gifted to him by Danfeng Liang and while he did not know Chinese at that time, he searched online in this Internet Age and found this painter far across the world.
Today, that melancholic teen is now the Representative of Mexico in Taiwan; there are truly countless stories up north, in the home of fairytales.
Danfeng Liang is the first woman to undertake the Grand Tour and also the first female painter to travel to faraway lands in pursuit of painting. She has since toured more than 80 countries and her footprints can be found from South America all the way to the Arctic Circle.
Speaking of the Grand Tour today, the media often encourages people to, at least, experience a “gap year”; the life of Danfeng Liang seems to always involve faraway travels.
From her escape that led her from Hong Kong to the U.S., then to Taiwan with her painter father, Dingming Liang, her life has dipped in deep valleys and she is a lady that has seen the world.
I can draw any place found on the streets, my father is the one who influenced me to always bring a book and a pen. He was the one who believed that you could tour the world with paper and pen, but what he would not know was that I really traveled the world over.”
Having experienced a great span of time and the 5 major continents, Danfeng Liang lived more than six decades in Taiwan in her later years, producing approximately 760 works that depicted the natural scenery and culture of Taiwan.
Danfeng Liang spent her early years living in Yonghe. Across the bridge was the view of Tamsui River which, back in 1973, still contained small boats that cleaned silt from the river and transported them to construction sites.
She was familiar with the area surrounding Yongan Market, her sketches mostly detailing the market and nearby areas, such as the street vendors selling pig’s trotters or wontons, or the master who wrote Chinese New Year’s couplets.
Liang stated that back then, when she was sketching portraits, she would order a bowl of noodles from a street vendor, not to fill her belly, but to observe the people in front of her.
People saw that she always seemed to be drawing in a corner. Danfeng Liang mentioned that when her subject is nervous, she was often the first to feel awkward so as time passed by. So, she made it a habit to stand further, hiding in the crowd and gazing through the gaps between people.
“You can draw away as they continue with their business or change your perspective and continue. You get to meet all types of people while sketching and who understand to respect your drawings, we greet each other with smiles.”
She often says, “draw whatever is around, draw whatever you see.”
She was able to see the Lotus Pond, at the National Museum of History, from a different perspective, she drew from Yangming Mountain to Grand Hotel and depicted the unfinished Shin Kong Life Tower from a lonely angle.
The Minister of Education, Yeh Jiunn-rong, mentioned that Danfeng Liang loves to place trees in the foreground but seeks to emphasize the objects in the background.
Simply put, Danfeng Liang traveled the world because she had the ability. She mentioned, in the past, that her experience as a refugee with her father, including the separation and hunger suffered during her childhood, became her courage when traveling the world.
She was born into the renowned Liang family, but their gates could not restrict her heart from yearning for freedom.
In her younger years, she ascended Yushan with her art instruments and endured the battering winds while painting pages upon pages of the changing clouds and their colors to accumulate many lesser works.
Afterwards, she felt a deep sense of regret for not painting something larger, so she left early in the morning, laid her canvas on the ground and waited for sunrise on the peak of Yushan while dressed in a qipao.
Maybe it was due to her family background, but the qipao became a personal signature during Danfeng Liang’s youth.
Others thought the qipao was difficult and hindered activity, but she wore it everywhere she went; when the outer island regions were difficult to visit for strategic reasons, she received a rare official invitation and wandered the coasts and mountains of Penghu on her own.
She stood in front of her work, detailing the surging emotions in her heart when she saw the coastline of Penghu.
She thought only of her work, forgetting the dangers in front of her and when she finally came to her senses, a group of soldiers stood behind her before she realized she had trespassed in a prohibited coastal defense zone.
Most of the time, Danfeng Liang’s artistic inspiration still came from Taipei’s urban areas. Once, she even looked out from the National Museum of History and risked being asked to leave, to paint.
As someone who traveled far and wide, sometimes toeing the red line, Danfeng Liang exuded class, speaking calmly with assurance; however, she was always walking the path of art and not the type of socialite locked in her room, drowning in fantasies.
When mentioning the National Museum of History, the nearby Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School just so happened to be the Alma Mater of Minister of Education, Yeh Jiunn-rong. He remembers wandering the area when he was a student and Danfeng Liang walking up to him, asking curiously: “Did you see me back then?”
Back then, Taiwan didn’t have any good painting tool. When someone was able to import some, a sheet of art paper would cost $100, which was an immense luxury at the time.
Danfeng Liang remembers having so little materials at the time but, when finally watercolor paper was available, she bought them all. When paying, the cashier asked her: “How rich is your family?”
Danfeng Liang came from a distinguished family; her father was modern painting master Dingming Liang and gained the admiration of Chiang Kai-shek who sent him to Europe to further his learning.
Dingming Liang was adept of, both, Chinese and western painting and while his style was bold and powerful, the daughter’s style was a complete departure from his.
When speaking of her family, Danfeng Liang once said that his father spent a lifetime cultivating talent, but never taught her how to paint, “he would only nod slightly when seeing my paintings, I actually hoped that he would say a bit more….”
”It’s because he encouraged me this way, saying ‘just go ahead and draw, draw so you won’t have to think so much.’ If you truly put in the effort you’ll discover that each segment, limb and spirit in the eyes can be a good painting.”
When speaking of the true impact that Dingming Liang had on his daughter, it is a fact that she always carries a sketchbook and note paper, “I flip a sheet, then another, and a great image is completed in a flash. I don’t only bring one sketchbook when I’m out, I often return from abroad with more than 30 sketchbooks.”
While attempting to find her style, Danfeng Liang stated that painting is similar to photography or playing a film. Several images constantly flicker in front of your eyes while the fleeting demeanor will never be achievable again.
It is as Cezanne said, “the world’s lifespan has shortened by another minute, draw him at this moment, become the moment, transform into a sensitive palette…transform the moment into an image…”. The artist’s paintbrush is simply a depiction of that moment in history. ”
“Sometimes a good image only needs a glance and a few strokes, inject emotions into a few strokes and the visual is preserved, even if the image has left, the emotions and the image are preserved. That’s why I never take photos, because my emotions are paramount, while a camera is only a machine.”
When others look at her sketchbooks upon her return, they often say: “you haven’t even finished this!” Danfeng Liang doesn’t feel the need to explain that because they return to the sketchbooks when there’s time.
That’s why the outlines are especially important because they preserve the emotions at that time along with the visual image, “they even preserve the way they impact you.”
”The key aspect of the artist is still a vision, what the eyes see. Secondly, it’s your reaction after seeing, like markings on a piece of paper combined with my memories and emotions. When I’m painting, I don’t carry any other wishes, I simply draw with my eyes to catch something else.”
In this era where the younger generation use projected photos to paint and spread their work on the internet, this era where anybody can copy and paste, Danfeng Liang has without a doubt become the traditional artist seemingly fending off the massive copies of the “era of mechanical copy” with a paintbrush in her hand.
Still believing that every hand-painted piece is unique, each stroke is an aura that gathers, to create a piece of work.
Danfeng Liang’s son remembers rarely traveling with his mother, but he remembers her swift actions, leaving immediately after finishing her drawing, in search for the next location while her children yearned to see more, to stay a while longer.
After having traveled Taiwan and the world, Danfeng Liang still wants to draw the fishing villages of Taiwan, to quietly observe every detail of the sun drying and the fisherman catching the fish.
However, her old age has gradually restricted her yearning for travel, due to health conditions; the free and wandering artist must still succumb to old age.
Her son carts her around, looking at past works and she says that time and space has changed everything and made them different. Sometimes, even after some thinking she still can’t remember the original scenery of a painting.
When interviewed, her students often state that aside from her exceptional artistic skills, Danfeng Liang also has an extremely strong aura.
“You feel especially confident when next to her, even if you’re not quite skilled, she is always able to give you energy. When out sketching, students sometimes don’t know how to capture a scene due to the multitude of objects, but the instructor will calm them down and they’ll naturally see the colors and composition.”
Danfeng Liang often said to her students “just go ahead and draw, I’ll be here with you.” Her kindness was the best gift to her students.
As she once again hosts an individual exhibition at the National Central Library, students flocking around her, is a testament to her unwavering popularity.
Even if the era of hand-drawn art has gradually left us, her charisma has undoubtedly preserved the final shadows of that era.