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The Significance of Liu Shiming’s Contribution to Chinese Art

By ROBERT C. MORGAN PhD August, 2022

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

Over the past few years, those us who follow contemporary art in China have had the advantage of seeing – perhaps, mostly from a virtual perspective – works by artists ranging from avant-gardism, such as western pop and conceptual art, to more recent developments in ink painting, all of which, in their own way, have challenged the concept of traditional art in past centuries by choosing to become experimental.

On another level, few viewers have had the opportunity to experience the work of an artist working outside this domain who has brought modernist sensibilities together with the folk traditions in Chinese art – a point of view shown earlier through exhibitions in Beijing, Washington D.C., and New York City. Liu Shiming (1926 – 2010) was classically trained in Chinese sculpture at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beljing during the late 1940s. While his earlier education gave attention to smaller, figurative bronze works, his work upon graduation (1951) slowly began to change, focusing on large-scale, publicly displayed sculpture. One of these, titled Cutting Through the Mountain to Bring in Water(1959), immediately brought his work to the attention of major critics, collectors, museum directors, and other contemporary sculptors.

Despite his recent success, Liu Shiming never lost his interest or devotion to traditional folk art. Rather than sculpture that aspired to attract followers of western modernism, Liu’s primary audience came from everyday working class people living in rural areas. The result of this attention by the media eventually became the impetus by which the artist decided to move from urbanity to the rural province of Henan and eventually to Hebei where rural life dominated the scene. Liu’s aesthetic focus moved away from the fantastic wealthy museums to small local ones amid the everyday life of country inhabitation.

Eli and the Orphans, 1974.

The source of his rural residency – from the 1980s into the early twenty-first century – brought such works as the magical Someone who Wants to Fly (1982) and the reverential Eji and the Orphans (2004) into a new context. Given their function and purpose these works suggest the character of masterpieces, but not from a Modernist point of view. Thematically, these sculptures deal with the figure in ways that appear both spiritual and earth-bound.

Lovers, 1983.

In one of Liu’s most celestial sculptures, titled Lovers (1983), the artist makes clear that art is not about wealth or money, but about the sensuous feelings that arise from everyday encounters. The content of this sculpture is given to how people act and interact with one another. Technically, the surface finesse of these cast bronze figures emulate a sensibility whereby viewers are able to feel a similar time and space. Liu’s viewers are not removed from these configurations. Rather they are united in relation to one another. Art carries them into another world where the tenderness and delicacy of human interactions may be felt within the course of everyday events.

Boatman on the Yellow River, 1990.

In either case, Liu’s sculpture characterizes the meaning of everyday life on the simplest terms, as, for example, in the Boatman on the Yellow River series. The variations as to how the figures intertwine with one another are again magical, but magical in a different way than Someone who Wants to Fly. In the Boatman series, the figures are working in motion rather than deliberately poised within a dream. Liu captures both in entirely remarkable ways. This is his manner, his style, and his connection to the casting of these nearly emblematic forms.

According to his own words, his point of view is expressed as follows” “The value and meaning of our existence . . . comes from others, from our relationships with others.” Even so, Liu’s detailed method of work is rarely, if ever, shared with others. In a more generalized way, he describes the following: “Chinese methods revere spontaneity, but also stress regularity. You must observe closely and imprint things in your memory, but when you start, you can’t be a stickler, you must simply let loose.”

Wooden Raft on the Yangtze River, 2004.

Many of his senior colleagues and professors in the sculpture department at CAFA were impressed by Liu’s willingness to go against the grain, to find his own way, and to speak in terms that were openly honest. Even so, he was forced to encounter adversity. There was no doubt: His work did not fit the form of many of the other students. He was on his own track. As one of his colleagues openly expressed: “Liu Shiming was either liked or disliked. There was no in-between.” There were those who saw his work solely on political terms, even after he had carefully explained his primary means for becoming an artist was not political. He later clarified that what convinced him to model working class figures came years earlier when he first encountered figurative ceramics made in the Han dynasty.

This suggests an important aspect of art, namely that art has the ability to inspire the viewer. Indeed, Liu Shiming was inspired by sculpture made nearly two centuries earlier, which led him to become an artist. This I what some critics have called the aesthetic experience. In other words, the viewer becomes one with the art. A fusion occurs. The source of Liu Shiming’s early inspirations was the work itself – the feeling of the sculpture – which eventually led him to inspire others. WM

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