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The Gifts of a Legendary Artist

"I was once asked how I could feed five chickens with only a handful of rice, and I asked, 'Which one can I discard?'" -- Xiong Bingming

Xiong Bingming, a Chinese native who died in France in 2002, was such a versatile artist that it is impossible to put his talent into a single category. He was a poet, philosopher, sculptor, painter, calligrapher and art professor, gaining international renown in all of these areas. His outstanding contribution to sculpture, in particular, has made him a legend in art circles throughout the world.

Xiong received a degree in philosophy from United Southwest University in Kunming in 1944. In 1947 he was offered a state scholarship to go to France to work on his Ph.D. at the prestigious University of Paris. The following year, he left the program and transferred to the National Advanced College of Fine Arts to study sculpture in the Saubique Class. Soon after he moved again to Guimond Class, Academy Juhen.

When New China was founded in 1949, Xiong didn't immediately return to the motherland like so many of his friends. "At that time, I had studied at Zadkine, Academie de la Grande Chaumiere for only a few months. I had studied abstract sculpture for merely one year and hadn't finished my program. Even if I had goneback to China, I couldn't have contributed to the motherland. That's why I chose to stay while my friends, like Wu Guanzhong (a renowned painter), made a resolute decision to go," Xiong recalled 50 years later. Looking back over his life, it seems that his decision to stay in France gave him the opportunity to become a world-class artist. 

In explaining why he gave up philosophy to learn sculpture, Xiong said: "It was painter
Guimond who changed my destiny and the fathomless charm of sculptor Auguste Rodin that set me on the path to pursue the art of sculpture."

He recalled the day the course of his life took an irreversible turn. "It was January 31, 1948. After the lunchtime, Professor Bayer led my philosophy classmates and me to visit sculptor Guimond, who lived in the northern part of Paris. Everything I saw at Guimond's home captured my imagination. What stunned me most were the profound philosophical implications of his statues. I was suddenly inspired. I felt pure delight that day." Xiong's face still glowed with enthusiasm when he recalled the moment half a century later.

From that day on, the young philosopher, who had never touched chisels or paintbrushes, devoted himself to sculpture and painting, Several decades later, his statues and watercolors are considered world masterpieces.

"Rodin's work gave continued inspiration both to my creation and my life," Xiong said. "His works have left indelible impressions on my emotions and my thoughts. Austrian poet Rainer Rilke said, 'Rodin is everything.' With his varieties of statues, Rodin displayed all the aspects of human society-the tragic and the joyful, the horrible and the lovely, the heroic and ignoble. He revealed the truth of life and significance of artistic creation. In his Walking Man, the subject is striding forward with resolution as if it has a set destination in mind. This statue impresses me most." 

Xiong's pursuit of "philosophical art" has gained him an international reputation. Over the years, his sculptures have been exhibited in many prestigious sculpture exhibitions, including the "2000 World Animal Sculpture Exhibition" in Nevers, France, "International Animal Sculpture Exhibition" in Rambouillet, France, and "Modern Carving Exhibition on Wuxing (Chinese philosophy of five-elements)". In 1988, his "Flying Crane" was selected as a representative statue to be placed in "World Statue Garden" in the Olympic Village in Seoul, South Korea. And his huge iron statue "Lu Xun" (a renowned modern Chinese writer) is on display in the China Modern Literature Museum.

Xiong is also an accomplished calligrapher. As he put it: "Chinese calligraphy is an art that mixes philosophy and design art - like sculpture and painting. It is more concrete and figurative than philosophy but more abstract and symbolic than painting and sculpture."

In 1962, Xiong, then a professional sculptor, took a job as a Chinese teacher at Paris Oriental Language and Culture Institute. He worked there until his death in 2002. "When I taught at the institute, I found French students showed growing enthusiasm about learning Chinese. At the request of the institute, I taught them not only the Chinese, language but also Chinese calligraphy. Thus I began to make an in-depth study of this Chinese traditional art," he said.

Over the decades, Xiong has published a number of insightful academic works on calligraphy. In his "Theory Systems of Chinese Calligraphy", Xiong reviewed China's calligraphy theories prior to the Qing Dynasty, looking at them from both philosophical and historical perspectives, and discussed their aesthetic values. This book is now generally regarded as a pioneering work in the development of China's aesthetics theories. The book was reprinted by Hong Kong Commerce
Press in 1985.

In 1984, Xiong published "Zhang Xu and Wild Cursive-Style Calligraphy" (French Edition) which was incorporated into "Series of the Advanced Sinology Institute of French Academy". In 1985, 1988 and 1992, while in China, he held three short courses on calligraphy, highlighting the skills, theory, and the art itself. "I used different philosophical concepts to teach the three courses. In the course on skills, I focused on visual perception; in the course on the art, I applied Western intuitive reasoning; and in the course on the doctrine, I emphasized on the relationship between calligraphy and philosophy, and the concept of ultimate realm," Xiong said.

According to Xiong, the core of Chinese culture is philosophy, and at the center of the core is Chinese calligraphy. He was deeply concerned that the significance of this art had yet to be fully realized and that theoretical review and analysis still needed to be made. "This art is already part of our souls. It is obviously painful and difficult to make self-analysis of our souls," the artist said.

Xiong was also a poet of the sentimental school. His poems are works of nostalgia typical of traditional Chinese poets. Meanwhile, they are the wise reflections of a unique philosopher-artist.

"When I taught Chinese, in order to make my philosophical thinking understood to my students, I tried to use the plainest words possible in my lectures. Those words turned into my first poems," he said. Plain as they were, Xiong's poems have a lingering charm laced with remembrances of things past. From his poems, one can feel his passion for his motherland and his eagerness to return to his hometown.

In 1965, a Chinese artist who just arrived in Paris asked Xiong how he felt about being in France for 20 years. Xiong replied: "I am a seed born from Chinese culture but growing on Western land.

I don't know what kind of flower I will blossom into - red, purple or gray, or what kind of fruits I will yield - sweet, sour or bitter. In the end of my life, I have to show my fruits to my friends. But I am neither proud nor ashamed."

As a "seed born from Chinese culture", Xiong put his roots deep into French soil and grew into a flourishing tree. This tree, fused with the culture of his motherland, has fueled Xiong's artistic vision throughout his life. Six months before he died, Xiong said: "In the new century, Chinese scholars' sense of concern and responsibility have changed to focus on new orientations, because the time of being bullied has long passed and Chinese people have not only stood up but also stood at the forefront of world cultural development. But the one thing that remains unchanged is the spirit that Chinese scholars have cherished throughout history: Be the first to bear hardship and the last to enjoy comfort."

(Chinaculture.org by Yu Xi January 21, 2005)

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