Anchor Image: Sybil Lau
Sybil Lau has always had a curiosity for the arts. The Canadian-born Chinese poet, philanthropist as well as patron and collector of the arts serves as trustee for several endowment funds and sits on various philanthropic committees. Plus, her passion for the arts clearly runs in the family.
Lau is great-granddaughter to Zhang Zongxiang (张宗祥), who was a famous scholar, historian, poet, educator, calligrapher and collector of antique relics and art. In his lifetime, Zhang had donated more than 400 pieces of important Chinese antiques, porcelain ceramics of Ming and Song dynasties, as well as calligraphies and paintings by great masters such as Fu Baoshi (傅抱石) and Huang Binhong (黃賓虹) from his life’s collection to the People’s Republic of China. Among the historically important works are the most complete collection of the Ming Dynasty’s Yongle Encyclopedia (永樂大典), and a copy of the Qing Dynasty’s Siku Quanshu Complete Library of the Four Treasuries (四庫全書), which is the largest collection of books in Chinese history; the copy is kept in Zhejiang Library in Hangzhou.
Recently, Lau has developed a keen interest in Chinese calligraphy and has been honing her writing skills through continual practice. In the old days, Chinese calligraphers modelled after the great masters and copied their writing by hand so as to learn from them. Many great calligraphers were also collectors; they would often copy original pieces for their own collection. Lau does the same.
A few of Lau’s favourite calligraphy pieces include the famous Huai-su’s Autobiography (懷素自叙帖), Four Poems by Zhang Xu (古詩四帖 (張旭)) and 1,000 Character Classic (千字文), a highly reputed work of Song Dynasty emperor Huizong, who painted under the sobriquet Zhao Ji (趙佶). Both Huai-su and Zhang Xu are arguably the most important calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty, and Lau replicates all three works in the same style.
Lau’s interests in philosophy, theology, Chinese history, as well as Chinese and English modernist poetry and literature have undoubtedly influenced how she thinks about and collects art.
But her interest in art doesn’t stop at Chinese calligraphy. Lau’s art collection also includes works by artists of Western culture such as Lucio Fontana, Pierre Soulages, Gerhard Richter and George Grosz.
Here, she shares some insights on how she views and interprets art, and what it means to her.
On How She Started:
One of the first pieces of art I acquired is a small ring by famous American sculptor, painter and jewellery designer Alexander Calder. After I saw it in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, I began to look out for his works. I am quite taken by his fantastic mobiles and curious miniatures. Since then, I have continued to collect works of art from across different periods, artists and genres.
On How She Paints and Collects:
I think art is very personal and subjective. So just buy what you love — trust your own eye.
After seeing a piece by legendary Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, I remember asking the gallery for the Riopelle pieces they had. A small photo caught my eye but it was in their Monaco office. Even after rushing off to a coffee meeting, I was still so curious about the piece I had to Google the title of the work for a clearer photo and information on its provenance. That was when I went back to the gallery and bought it — I love the piece!
We all get influenced by friends or someone else. At the end of the day, it is our own opinion and how we see something that is important. Everyone sees things in a completely different way, and that is what makes us unique.
For me, I am sure my love for poetry by TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, WB Yeats and Tang Dynasty greats, who have all influenced how I see art and my own philosophy in life. I have also done paintings inspired by these poets. I truly believe art brings together different people, languages, cultures, history and time. It breaks down all barriers as it sees no gender, race, religion or bias.
On Her Go-To Resources:
I like to read a lot and watch documentaries. Recently, I watched Painters Painting directed by Emile de Antonio about the post-war New York art scene and the genesis of different American art movements including abstract expressionism; and Gerhard Richter Painting, about a famous German visual artist, one of the greatest living artists today, who shows how he paints in this eponymous film directed by Corinna Belzon for Kino Lorber Films.
Two books I am reading are Art In Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics by Paul Mattick, which is about how art is prevalent in our everyday life and relationships, transcending history; and Writings on Art by Johann Joachim Winckelmann.
Checking out museums and art fairs is always a joy, but we don’t need to travel to learn or appreciate art. For me, I am as happy seeing photos on Instagram, from friends or via the Internet.
In New York City, I like to visit the MOMA, the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the Whitney (Whitney Museum of American Art). The Lourve in Paris, of course, is another must-visit.
In Canada, the national art galleries in Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver have extensive international collections.
As many great artists were influenced by history, theology and poetry, I like to look at as much art as I can. In this way, I get to learn about different cultures and the world in a completely different way — by feeling the emotions and “listening” to the stories through looking at art with my own eyes.