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Liu Shiming:Sculpting the Chinese Spirit: Vitality in Stillness

Sculpture has a long tradition in China, beginning in ancient times, continuing through the Tang and Ming Dynasties, all the way to today’s more experimental contemporary artists. Modern Chinese sculpture began in the early 20th Century when more Western styles began to influence centuries-old traditions. Liu Shiming was a part of this evolution, attending the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing from 1946 to 1950, where, in addition to intensive classical training, he studied modern French theory and technique, particularly the teachings of Auguste Rodin. The different perspectives introduced by these concepts were a lifelong influence on his work, allowing him to pursue new ideas while remaining true to his culture and his own artistic spirit.

Liu Shiming, Measuring Land (2005).

Recognition of Liu Shiming’s unique talent came early. His sculpture Measuring Land, created as his graduate project, won first prize and was published in the inaugural issue of The People’s Pictorial in 1950. Later that year it was sent to Prague for an exhibition, ultimately being added to the permanent collection of the Czech National Museum. Just eight years after, while he was still teaching at the Central Academy of Fine Arts Sculpture Research Institute, his monumental 23-foot-high sculpture Cutting Through Mountains to Bring in Water was placed in Beijing’s Zhongshan Park for the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. It was lauded as embodying the spirit and image of 1950s China, making Liu a household name. The heroic proportion of the sculpture heralded the new wave in sculpture-making, emanating optimism for the new ideology while also signifying fearlessness and courage in a way that had not been experienced before in Chinese art.

Liu Shiming, Cutting Through Mountains to Bring in Water (1970).

Despite his success, Liu Shiming made the difficult decision to follow his heart, giving up the prestige and admiration he had garnered since graduating from CAFA. In 1961, having become enthralled with the slow rhythms of Henan opera, he requested permission to leave Beijing for Henan, later applying for a transfer to Baoding, Hebei. His experiences moving through the countryside over the next fifteen years gave him an intimate understanding of the rustic living conditions and spiritual pursuits prevalent in rural China. This challenging period of solitude, of living very simply, had a profound effect on Liu Shiming, leading him to an inner transformation and peacefulness that affected both his life and his art as he navigated the long and difficult journey back to Beijing. Distance from his former life also helped to shape his very direct approach to making sculpture, which endured for the rest of his life. On finally returning to his home city of Beijing, he was given a unique opportunity to restore and reproduce cultural relics at the China History Museum, the central location for maintaining important historical artifacts. Working with these fragile artworks for seven years further enhanced both his overall aesthetic appreciation and his already well-honed sculptural skills.

Liu Shiming, Ansai Waist Drummer (1989).

Throughout his long career Shiming made art, sculpting in clay or wood depending on his circumstance, oftentimes turning the images into bronze. What is apparent in all of his work is his sensitivity and enormous empathy for his subjects. Moving away from the epic scale and grand gestures evident in his early career, he turned his eye to the everyday, drawn to the small, repeated movements of daily life, of people living and surviving in small towns and villages. He studied itinerant musicians and actors, capturing moments when they were not in front of an audience but rather as they were tending to their children or eating a meal or merely resting. Open to the vagaries of simply being human, he saw the grace and vigor in fishermen and farmers, in families, in workers of all sorts, allowing the serendipity of whatever caught his eye or touched his soul to lead his hand.

Photo Credit: Liu Shiming Art Foundation.

The drawings selected here, while simply done in ink or pen or paint, are demonstrations of how and what he focused on as he moved through the world. An endless source of ideas, they are roughly drawn images, loose sketches that often seem unfinished, some of which became the basis for a sculpture, some not. Evidence of the broadness of his eye’s scope, his changing styles, and his insatiable need to create, they give us great insight into his intuitive creative process.

Liu Shiming, Worship (1980).

The soul and spirit of Liu Shiming is evident everywhere in his sculpture. It is in the certainty of his touch: you can almost feel his hands at work as he calls on his memory of a fleeting moment or a long observed ritual – a fashionable woman folding herself over her sleeping child as she waits in the train station (Mother and Child at the Station, 2006), a worshipper prostrate in prayer, (Worship, 1980), or his beloved grandson grinning as he grabs his toes with glee (Mengmeng, 1989). There is a stillness, a resolute quiet, evident in his work which is deeply moving, an homage to the ephemeral connection between memory and identity. Many of his sculptures are small -- as he once said “there is boldness in small things” -- yet they radiate human warmth and intimacy, promoting introspection of one’s self, of our own connection to tradition, emotion and even our own beliefs.

Liu Shiming, Mengmeng (1989)

Throughout his six decades of telling stories in his sculpture, Shiming’s personal faith in art was unwavering. The sculptures seem timeless, some even universal, channeling his deep passion and compassion through the lenses of his acceptance of life’s strange journey, his love for humanity and his own cultural heritage. We see a profound understanding of the weight of thousands of years of convention fused with his own view of the world, a view that celebrates and embraces the dignity and resilience of unacknowledged and anonymous lives, lives challenged by the economic and political upheavals and transformations of a modernizing society.

Fran Kaufman

New York

April 25, 2022

Fran Kaufman is a partner in Kaufman Vardy Projects, an international consultancy based in New York and Miami, focused on strategic marketing and curatorial practice as well as advising private and institutional clients. She was a partner in Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art for 17 years, a contemporary gallery in NYC and a dedicated center for dialogue between visual art, literature, and music. Her experience includes directing both palmbeach3 contemporary art fair for three seasons and the first Houston Fine Art Fair. Fran has curated numerous projects in the US, Europe and Latin America and is a regular lecturer and panelist on art market issues at venues, including Sotheby's Institute and NYU. She frequently writes about art for catalogues and other publications.

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