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Liu Xiaodong interview: 'London is the centre of the art world'

The Chinese artist chats about capturing Londoners on canvas and why he prefers to paint in pubs rather than palaces

Liu Xiaodong
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© the artist/Lisson Gallery

Liu Xiaodong ('Green Pub')
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'Green Pub'

© the artist/Lisson Gallery

Liu Xiaodong
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© the artist/Lisson Gallery

Liu Xiaodong ('White Pub', 2013)
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'White Pub', 2013

© the artist/Lisson Gallery

Knowing that Liu Xiaodong creates portraits – in a realist manner, on a large scale – doesn’t prepare you for their impact. The 50-year-old Chinese artist paints his subjects directly from life, in their surroundings, and really captures the essence of personality and place. For his first UK solo show, at Lisson Gallery, Liu visited two London pubs – The Perseverance and The Chapel in Marylebone – to get up-close and personal with Londoners at leisure. Why did you want to paint in London?
‘I wanted to come here to connect with Londoners. Plus, London is the centre of the art world.’

Why did you choose to paint in pubs?
‘I was keen to meet and paint Londoners, but it's hard to get access. In a pub I was able to get close to the landlord and their family.’

What was it like painting with an audience?
‘Before I began, I thought: If I paint in the pub, people won’t like the smell of the oil. But actually, people didn’t say anything about it. I thought London people were really serious. But now, I think they’re really open.’

Did you get lots of attention?
‘Londoners have seen everything, so they just looked at the paintings.’ Why are your paintings so large?
‘Because I want the people I paint to be lifesize. That way the viewer can really go into the painting.’

Which London building would you love to paint in?  
‘I prefer places that reflect normal life to very famous buildings.’

So, not St Paul’s Cathedral or Buckingham Palace?  
‘If the Queen asked, then I’d love to.’

What will you miss most about London when you leave?
‘Walking to the pub from my hotel. It’s 2,382 steps.’

Interview by Jessica Moffatt-Owen, 20, a student from Brockley. She was selected to write this article as part of the Time Out Takeover – a special edition of the magazine written entirely by our readers.

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