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Hero's Sculpt in Time

Has there been any other sculptor in the world whose work is to be found in tens of millions of households? Probably not.

Liu Kaiqu may rank as the most popular Chinese sculptor of all time thanks to the bust he carved of Chairman Mao.

Plaster replicas were mass produced during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and took pride of place in millions of -- if not all -- Chinese homes.

The original work, a bust more than 2 meters tall, today stands at the center of the exhibition hall at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC).

And this is the venue for a showcase to celebrate the sculptor's work.

The exhibition, at the museum until October 2, is hosted by the Chinese Ministry of Culture and the NAMOC, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Liu (1904-1993).

"He was a most important Chinese sculptor of the 20th century and possibly the most important of all time," says art historian, Chen Shaofeng.

The millions of Mao busts replicas have long disappeared from most households -- but another of his masterpieces still stands at the center of the Tian'anmen Square, which itself, lies at the center of the capital.

Liu designed the Monument of the People's Heroes in the square, and carved three of the 10 bas-reliefs that decorate the monument.

The museum exhibition includes photos of the three bas-reliefs plus 36 of his sculptures and over 60 of his sketches and documents of his life and creations.

It also features photos of 28 sculptures by the artist, which were created during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45) but destroyed or lost during those years.

"The photos are a most interesting part of the exhibition," says Wang An, deputy director of the NAMOC.

"They show Liu was respected as a master sculptor much earlier than 1949. He was best known then for the 'Monument of Martyrs in the Songhu Campaign,' of 1935, and the 'Monument of Nameless Heroes' of 1944," he adds.

The former was built in Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang Province, in memory of those who gave their lives and defeated the Japanese army which tried to take over Shanghai in January 1932. The battle was named Songhu Campaign. A statue by Liu, which stood in front of the imposing monument, depicted two soldiers pointing their arms fearlessly towards the east.

The latter was established in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, to remember the soldiers from the province, who had left their homeland with optimism, pride and patriotism, marched east to the front and died there.

"There's a possibility that some of these lost masterpieces, or at least parts of them, still exist somewhere in the world. We would really want to purchase such pieces," said director Wang.

Wang said the NAMOC is especially interested in Liu's works because he was the first director of the museum after it was built in 1963.

The original pieces on display included over revered leaders, influential citizens and historical figures, including busts of Dr Sun Yat-sen, Cai Yuanpei, Du Fu and Xiao Youmei. Of these, the sculptor loved best his sculpture of Xiao Youmei, which he carved in 1976, says his wife, Cheng Lina.

Xiao (1884-1940), was a composer and music educator and founded China's first music conservatory in Shanghai in 1927, which later became the Central Conservatory of Music.

The bronze bust of the thin musician, with his eyes widely open, has an intense stare tainted by sadness and the expression is a mix of emotions which in turn spark curiosity among observers.

All of Liu's works show influences from his native China and of France, where he studied sculpting, says Wang.

Born in East China's Anhui Province, Liu graduated from the department of oil painting from the Beijing Art Institute in 1927, and a year later became a teacher at the prestigious Hangzhou Art Institute.

In the same year he became the first Chinese student to study in France, where he was later appointed assistant to great French sculptor Jean Boucher at the National Art Academy in Paris.

When Liu returned to China in 1933, he was appointed dean of the department of sculpture at the Hangzhou Art Institute, and later appointed its president. In 1959, he became vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

"My life shows that one man can sculpt his own life," he once told his wife.

"His works also show that one man can record the history," says Wang.

(China Daily September 17, 2004)


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