Study: Keye Luke (KL001)

Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1928


Astonishing Drawings May Prove Departure Point for Meeting of Divergent Caucasian and Asiatic Art Views 

By Arthur Miller

Romance is not dead! So one murmurs to himself as he contemplates the astonishing work in black and white of Keye Luke, the young Chinese American artist who created the beautiful black and white drawings reproduced here. For the rhythm-flowing hands, from which sprays of leaves drip as crystal water from a hidden spring, during the long day satisfy the rigorous exactitudes of a mail-order catalogue, drawing with like impartiality of a complicated machine, an alarm clock or a package of washing soap.

But at night, under a quiet lamp, the old visions of the Orient find new patterns under the pen of this young wizard, and in far-off London, among his beloved masterpieces of Chinese and Japanese art, Lawrence Binyon, director of prints and drawings for the British Museum, takes time to write: “I expect that in vitality of line, Mr. Keye Luke altogether surpasses Beardsley… but I confess I fear for the future of this young artist if he remains in the West… I would like to see him back in China bringing new life and inspiration to Chinese art.”

The West has not offered much consolation to Keye Luke. Critics have written enthusiastically of him, reproducing an occasional drawing, but publishers have not yet come forward to use this priceless illustrator’s gifts for their stories of the East.

But in Seattle, in Battle Creek, Mich., in San Francisco, and now in Los Angeles, Luke tirelessly draws upon the past of his celestial race and upon the European past of his adopted America to produce a mordant and controlled art of black and white that reminds us now of a decorated Grecian vase and at the same time of the flowing line and musical spacing of a Chinese painting. The West cannot much longer refuse such a gift. Surely we shall yet see some of our finest books decorated by his hand.

As a high school student his powers made beautiful the class book of his senior year. Then it was Beardsley, western master of the macabre, who fascinated the young Chinaman. The stories brought back to Europe from the East by the Crusaders were natural matter to his mind. Alladin and Genii, he understood them, creatures from a land of fantasy that outlives any world or relity. Later he turned to Oscar Wilde’s “Fairy Tales” and his latest work was a series of illustrations to Donne Byrne’s “Messer Marco Polo,” from which are selected examples on this page.

The story of his birth, illuminating as it does his problem and probably future, was so beautifully told by Charles Caldwell Dobie in “The San Franciscan” that I cannot forego reprinting here.

“Some twenty-five years ago, a young Chinese merchant who was born in San Francisco upheld his native tradition by returning to China for a bride. He chose, or possibly his parents chose for him, a maiden with the charming name of Golden Chrysanthemum who lived in a village just outside of Canton bearing equally charming name of Joyous People.

“The bride had back of her a long ancestry of scholars with the added and culminating distinction of a father who had taught classes at the tender age of fourteen.

“As a result of this union, during the Festival of Rice Cakes, the little village of Joyous People found its population increased by the arrival of a prospective male citizen who was given the name of Keye Luke. For three years this diminutive gentleman basked in the sunshine of his home town only to be carried away one day to the bustling American city of Seattle.

“And at that moment were set in motion an interesting problem in art development of which the accompanying illustration is the latest but by no means the final testimony. Can oriental and occidental art be blended successfully? It remains for Keye Luke, perhaps, to be the proving ground for or against this question.”

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