• News
  • Dec 17, 2013

Michael Sullivan, Pioneer Chinese Art Scholar, Dies at 96

Michael and Wu

Michael Sullivan, a pioneering British art historian in the fields of Chinese traditional and contemporary art, died in his home in Oxford, England, on September 28, at the age of 96. He had just completed a three-week trip to China.

Born in Toronto, Canada, and raised in London, after studying architecture at Oxford, Sullivan worked as a volunteer in China, delivering medical supplies for the International and Chinese Red Cross during World War II. In 1943, he married Wu Baohuan, a biologist who gave up her career to work with Sullivan on his scholastic and collecting pursuits. Wu, fondly known as Khoan, died in 2003. Sullivan described her contribution to his work as having “built bridges, and opened doors for me.”

It was the Paris-trained painter Pang Xunqin, in Chengdu, who first introduced Sullivan to Chinese art and the many Chinese artists who had, fleeing from the Japanese occupation, congregated in western China.  After the war, Sullivan returned to London, where he studied Chinese language, history and art at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 1952, at Harvard University, he completed the first English-language PhD thesis on Chinese painting and from this moment on he devoted himself to teaching Chinese art history in universities in the United States, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Like his more controversial colleague, the biochemist Joseph Needham of Cambridge, author of the monumental Science and Civilisation in China (1954), Sullivan was a prolific interpreter of Chinese aesthetics and cultural history for the English-speaking world.  

Beginning in the 1940s in Sichuan, Khoan and Sullivan began to collect contemporary Chinese paintings. Their holdings, which can be viewed in the publication Modern Chinese Art: The Khoan and Michael Sullivan Collection (2001, revised 2010), are as much a testimony to their taste as to their personal relationships with Chinese artists over a period of 70 years. Among the artists whose works are part of the collection are Zao Wou-ki, Zhang Daqian, Wu Guanzhong, Wu Zuoren, Zhu Dechun and Huang Yongyu.  A true representation of the art of 20th century China, the collection— which was exhibited at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in September 2012—has been bequeathed to the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford.

Sullivan’s greatest legacy, however, is his oeuvre of scholarly writings on Chinese art. Beginning with Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century (1959), the first such book in a Western language, Sullivan constantly revised his works until his last days. His A Short History of Chinese Art, published in 1967, has continued to grow expand and can still be found on bookshelves today under the title The Arts of China. Sullivan’s other important texts are Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China (1996), Modern Chinese Artists: A Biographical Dictionary (2006) and the broader The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art (1973, revised 1998). Reflected in these works is the meeting of East and West and a shared lifetime pursuit—serendipitous moments in history that will have lasting significance.

Don J. Cohn is senior editor at ArtAsiaPacific.

Back to News