Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Artworks and Masters – Liang Kai (梁楷/ Liang K’ai): Master of Sketches

A Short Biography of Liang Kai (梁楷/ Liang K’ai)

Liang Kai (c. 1140 – c. 1210), also known as “Madman Liang”, was born in Dongping, Shandong province, and is one of the most famous painters of the Song Dynasty. There is not many information about his life, but it is known that he studied painting with fellow painter Jai Shigu and was ranked Painter-in-Attendance at the Imperial Painting Academy in Hangzhou, where he was awarded the Golden Girdle, an honorable distinction. For reasons unknown, he quit the Academy to study Chan Buddhism. His works are simple, yet powerful paintings, which are thoroughly connected to the principles of Chan Buddhism – spontaneity, individuality and immediacy.

The Paintings of Liang Kai (梁楷/ Liang K’ai)

Liang Kai’s style of painting is best described as “sketchy”. The Chinese term “jianbi” (减笔), meaning “abbreviated brush”, is used when it comes to his painting manner. It is characterized by the number of brushstrokes employed being limited to an absolute minimum. Although this painting style looks simple and easy, it reveals the high level of concentration that Liang must have had when working with the brush.

Take for example Liang Kai’s most famous picture, a portrait of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai. The poet is depicted from the side, his head uplifted and his mouth open. The picture’s title tells us that Li Bai is reciting a poem while strolling. Liang has depicted the famous poet with not more than 10 brushstrokes in different shades of grey and black. Probably by using an old and frayed brush, he illustrates the poet’s hair knot with just one thick splash of ink. The quickly drawn strokes that form the poet’s body are strongly and confidently executed, the flowing strokes at the hem of his garment indicate the poet’s strolling movements.

Liang Kai’s style was unorthodox, even somewhat respectless. In his picture “A Sage”, he depicts a Celestial being – drunk. Instead of showing a neatly dressed, impressive-looking Immortal, he rather depicts the supernatural being in a quite human way: his untidy garment opened and his belly protruding, the Celestial sways forward with a confused look on his face. Liang emphasizes the blurry condition of the intoxicated Immortal by the heavy use of wet ink washes, which underline the unstable, fuzzy atmosphere. Who could have depicted an Immortal like this, if not “Madman Liang”?