Art & Culture

Little Black Book of… Art

A glimpse into the art and life of art connoisseur Sybil Lau.

Little Black Book of… Art

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.

Lau’s great grandfather (first row, second from right), was the third president of Xiling Seal Art Society (西泠印社) whose first President was prominent painter, calligrapher and seal maker Wu Changshou (吴昌硕). The photo above was taken on October 25, 1964 on the 60th anniversary of the Xiling Seal Art Society; The famous artist Fu Baoshi is also present in the second row, fourth from left.
(Images courtesy Sybil Lau)

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.

A close-up of Song Dynasty emperor Huizong’s 1,000 Character Classic cursive script kept in the Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
An original calligraphy by Tang Dynasty calligrapher Zhang Xu kept in the Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
Lau’s version of Zhang Xu’s calligraphy.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
Lau fancies exquisite works such as this, which has the writings of military general and great strategist Sun Tzu 孫子. It is a rare carving done by hand on two pieces of sandalwood, which were joined as a “book”.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)

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.

Abstract strokes that depict emotions are what Lau inclines towards, like in this Chinese ink painting, “Leaves”, done on cardboard paper. It is inspired by poems on Autumn by Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu 杜甫. Painted by Sybil Lau.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
This abstract piece “The River-Merchant’s Wife” is inspired by Ezra Pound’s poem “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”, which was derived from famed Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai’s 李白 work. Painted by Sybil Lau.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
“Prufrock”, a watercolour painting that interprets on canvas the dramatic monologue in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Painted by Sybil Lau.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
This blazing piece is inspired by the passion of the story of Farewell my concubine (霸王別姬). Painted by Sybil Lau.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)

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.

Well-known museums, such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with this “A B, Mediation” (1986) by Gerhard Richter, display strong pieces that are worth studying.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)

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. 

The above “Annunciation” is by Early Renaissance Italian painter Fra Angelico. Lau explains that he laid the stylistic groundwork for Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Mark Rothko, and read that he theorized a utopian world, one in which everything and everyone is ultimately linked.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
Pierre Soulages, one of France’s greatest living artists, turned 100 in December 2019. The Louvre currently holds a solo exhibition “Homage to Soulages” (until 9 March, 2020) on his major works covering every stage of the artist’s seven-decade career from 1946 until today.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art displays masterpieces like this “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)
The famous poems of the Tang Dynasty from masters such as Du Fu (杜甫) were handpainted on this micro-mini fan. Ivory was a controversial medium that was popularly used at the time. The above piece, however, is made from bone. Here, Lau curates her own displays by juxtaposing a Giorgio Morandi-inspired ceramic ware from Italy and a few signed first edition books of poetry from both the East and West with this historically important fan.
(Image courtesy Sybil Lau)