Remembering Michael Sullivan
Distinguished Southeast Asian art historian T K Sabapathy remembers his late lecturer, Michael Sullivan, a pioneer in the field of art history in the region.
"No other teacher in my undergraduate years employed language as Sullivan did,” said T K Sabapathy, 78, at a public lecture, “Studying and Writing Histories of Art: A Beginning”, on March 18. Held at Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, in collaboration with University of Malaya, the two-hour event, complete with slide presentation, it attracted an audience of about 100 artists including curators, gallery owners, students and lecturers.
Sabapathy described Michael Sullivan’s impact as an educator, art historian, curator and writer. From 1954 to 1960, Sullivan taught history of art at the then University of Malaya in Singapore. He died in September 2013.
Sullivan’s research and writing on art in Southeast Asia, and how he inaugurated the academic study of art and its history in Malaya and Singapore, was recounted by Sabapathy, an adjunct associate professor with the Department of Architecture of the School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore.
The art history teacher examined Sullivan’s role as a curator of archaeological artefacts and art at the University of Malaya Art Museum when it was established in 1955.
“I remember seeing pictures painted in oil and ink by artists from Malaya and Singapore, hung adjacent to ceramic vessels and partial images of Buddha cast in bronze. It was exhilarating. There was nothing like it anywhere else in Singapore, or in Malaya, as far as I can recall.
"It was part of our daily student life. I felt Sullivan intended to convey relationships between these distant objects forcefully. He may well have intended to provide an environment that was visually stimulating and provoked curiosity,” said Sabapathy.
Life and times
Born in Toronto, Canada, and raised in London, Sullivan studied architecture at Oxford University. Upon graduating, he worked as a volunteer in China during World War Two, delivering medical supplies for the International and Chinese Red Cross organisations.
In 1943, he married Wu Baohuan, a biologist who gave up her career to help him with his scholastic and collecting pursuits. Wu, fondly known as Khoan, died in 2003. “She was his partner professionally. Virtually all of his publications were dedicated to Khoan,” said Sabapathy.
He also offered a glimpse of Sullivan’s personal life. “Khoan and Michael were inseparable. He repeatedly acknowledged how important she had been in his professional life. She made connections, she built bridges, she persuaded patrons to donate artworks to consolidate collections while he was the curator of the art museum in the then University of Malaya in Singapore.
“She was his assistant, dabbling as his secretary, protecting him. She sat at a table in a connecting space between the study and his office. As students, if anyone wished to meet with Sullivan, we had to furnish Khoan with a reason. And convince her of our need to see him. She never denied entry, or access to him.”
Sabapathy quoted Jerome Silbergeld, currently professor of Chinese Art History at Princeton University, as saying, “He (Sullivan) has a wonderfully relaxed disposition, he’s perhaps even a touch shy, very much a gentleman, and always gracious.” Silbergeld was a student of Sullivan’s during his stint as a lecturer and Professor of Oriental Art at Stanford University from 1966 to 1985.
Well-known Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983) famously painted Khoan in a work called Portrait of Khoan Sullivan, 1959.
“Sullivan installed Cheong Soo Pieng on a register apart from other artists, bragging about him more frequently than any other artist, regarding him as the most innovative, imaginative … and as having immense effect. He said: ‘Soo Pieng’s influence on the younger painters of Singapore and Malaya has been powerful and direct. Perhaps too direct. His angular figures, formalised portraits and his expressionistic colours are the mark of a highly sophisticated painter, whose consistent style has given rise to a school of young painters who copy his forms and colours’. And wait for this: ‘Just as the painters of Paris have copied (Pablo) Picasso and (Georges) Braque’.”
Sabapathy added: “I have not come across a published opinion on Soo Pieng [given] in the 1950s that is comparable to Sullivan’s … in such sharpness and in such an exalted tone.”
He highlighted the fact that Sullivan never made any reference to “Nanyang” art. “When he names artists from Singapore, he envisions and represents their creative work not as Singapore art but as Malayan art. Not as Nanyang but as Malayan. I have, by the way, not encountered the term ‘Nanyang’ in any of Sullivan’s writings. That is a matter that could be treated separately.”
The Khoan and Michael Sullivan collection
Sabapathy said Sullivan spoke highly of contemporary Malayan art, by referring to it as “the state of our cultures”. “His view was that the students should not only know what was before but be aware of what is culturally and historically (significant).”
He also said that Sullivan was “actively involved with artists and art in Singapore, with organising exhibitions of their works”, just as he did when he was residing in Chengdu, China, in the 1940s. “Hence, works by artists such as Soo Pieng, Chuah Thean Teng and Suri Mohyani were acquired via donation and purchase.”
More than 400 works from the collection of Khoan and Sullivan, acquired over seven decades, have been donated to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. The collection includes books, photographs as well as artworks by Chinese painters Qi Baishi (1864–1957), Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Pang Xunqin (1906–1985), Ding Cong (1916-2009) and so on.
Among Sullivan’s significant publications produced during his long and illustrious career as a historian of Chinese art are The Birth of Landscape Painting in China (1962), Symbols of Eternity (1979), The Birth of Landscape Painting in China: The Sui and Tang Dynasties (1980), The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art (1989), Art and Artists of Twentieth Century China (1996), The Arts of China (1973, 1984), Modern Chinese Art: The Khoan and Michael Sullivan Collection (2001).
“I bid Michael Sullivan adieu. I also salute a wonderful guru who introduced me to the world of art and, in incalculable ways, sustained me all my life. I thank you,” said Sabapathy, concluding his lecture.