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Pictures from the Rylands Library 45. ‘I shall not come to the end of its friendship’: Li Yuan-chia in conversation with Winifred Nicholson Stella Halkyard

The painter Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981) once gave an account of what she looked for in a work of art. Her standards are exacting and precise: ‘I want a focal point, something alive and silent… If it is a true picture I will never grow tired of it… [it will be] a place where the harmony of space is giving its verdict. I like harmony to be expressed in colour… it must certainly be a picture of truth, not photographic nor realistic, the surfaces of appearances – but measure and rhythm and scale that are its inner essence’. Here Nicholson gives central importance to the ‘living, glowing, vibrating tones of the rainbow prism’ of abstract colour. And also nominates ‘tirelessness’ as an essential quality for ‘however familiar I have grown with it, I shall not come to the end of its friendship’.

Li Yuan-chia’s homage to the artistic achievements of his comrade in art.

Li Yuan chia, China’s first conceptual artist, met Winifred Ni-

On first glance, the two works of art shown here by the artist Li Yuan-chia (1929–1994) seem to have characteristics that preclude them from consideration as true pictures in Nicholson’s terms. Though resplendent with abstract colour they are also undeniably photographic. But living with them confirms their status as true pictures and the understanding that Nicholson, in particular, would not have spurned their friendship. For they convey, in concrete form, a sense of the many conversations these two artists exchanged over the twenty years of their friendship and at some level represent images Li Yuan chia, ‘Untitled’, 1990s (with the permission of the LYC Foundation and the

Whitworth, The University of Manchester).

cholson, experimental British painter and outstanding colourist, in 1968 when Li moved to Cumbria. From 1972 they became neighbours as he bought a run down farmhouse from her which he then proceeded to transfigure into the enchanting ‘do it yourself’ alternative universe of the LYC Museum and Art Gallery. They lived in a place many see as remote but their concerns were, as Guy Brett and Nick Sawyer have demonstrated, central to the international art of the twentieth century.

From Nicholson’s death in 1981

to his own in 1994, the abstract, ‘prismatic play of pristine colour’ that had preoccupied her came to inhabit Li’s own work as he began to experiment with ‘colour washes… constantly trying out different kinds of chemicals and dyes’ (Brett and Sawyer). For Nicholson, ‘colours wish to fly, to radiate, to shine, to withdraw deep into themselves’ and Li gave them scope to do so in his exquisitely applied chromatic glazes that transmute the tonal values of the material world caught within the underlying prints. Here, colour becomes the ‘vital power out of which forms, objects, thoughts themselves’ are created and expressed in its own terms.

And despite their original black and whiteness, which colludes with the surfaces of appearances, Li transforms Winifred’s vision of colour in the act of (literally) painting with light through the medium of photography. And as the snow-white light shatters, colours ‘appear one after the other as a river in sequence’, never coming to the end of their friendship.

Li Yuan-chia’s photographs are on display in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester until 15 December 2019 and his archive can be accessed at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

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