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Carving a Unique Niche in the Art World
One of China's top sculptors, Yan Youren built his career by capturing the private side of public figures, including Soong Ching Ling, widow of Sun Yat-sen. An altruist with a strong sense of civic duty, Yan hopes his sculptures will keep these eminent individuals alive in the public imagination for future generations, writes Gao Yiyang.

The sculptures of Yan Youren are alive with emotion. No mean feat for his subjects, primarily celebrities -- he is more adept at concealing their true emotions than allowing them to be exposed to the public at large.

Acknowledged as one of China's top sculptors of the human form, Yan has created busts of cultural and artistic icons since 1995. He has completed seven to date, including Soong Ching Ling (1893-1981), the widow of Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), leader of the democratic revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1911, and Zhang Leping (1910-1992), the cartoonist who created the famous 1940s cartoon character, San Mao.

Yan regards the creation of his sculptures as something of a civic duty. "Every celebrity has a private side, whether that is understood by the public or not. I feel that these celebrity images, emphasizing their human qualities, will help future generations understand their essence. It's my way of showing respect for the subjects I sculpt."

Yan's eyes become two crescents when he smiles, sparkling with passion. His sparse wiry hair, deep wrinkles across his forehead, generous nose and bushy gray whiskers give him the countenance of classical artist. After graduation from the Sculpture Department of the Shanghai Fine Arts College (the current Fine Arts College of Shanghai University) in 1965, Yan began his professional career at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Academy. In 1985, he resigned and plunged into the business world. Since 1995, Yan has been art director of the Shanghai Wolf Art Co. Ltd., a privately invested venture. "Sculpture is a unique medium," says Yu Limin, general manager of the company and a student of Yan. "Other forms of art -- music, for instance -- can be transient. They fade over time. But sculpture remains."

The process of making a sculpture is an involved one, as his sculpture of dramatist Huang Zuolin (1906-1994), located at the Shanghai Drama Art Theater, illustrates. Yan's first celebrity sculpture required several months of just watching Huang's work on video, talking with his relatives, and reading his work. The creation that emerged is a man musing, resting his chin in his left hand with the little finger curving against his cheek. His eyes look benign and urbane.

"This was Huang's most typical gesture. I think it suits him the best. The hardest and most interesting thing is to reflect his spirit in the sculpture. Right before I finished, Huang's makeup man asked me to scrape his forehead. I was dubious, but I followed his advice. The sculpture was a big hit -- Education Minister Chen Zhili, who knew Huang well, was astounded by its likeness," he says.

Yan's sculpture of Hu Weimin (1932-1989) was another success. "As a theater director, Hu's life was marked by suffering, but he never gave up his passion for the theater," says Yan. The sculpture features Hu's head, embedded into a big piece of stone vaguely shaped like the human body. "I elongated Hu's eyelines, made them curve upwards, lowered the corners of his mouth a little bit. All these seemingly minor details help to describe more concretely his tenacious, firm personality. The whole sculpture gives people the sense that Hu is like a volcano, with a great power within that may erupt at any moment."

The vice chairman of the Shanghai Artists' Association, Zhu Guorong, opines that Yan is one of the best portrait sculptors in the city as "he has a solid foundation of skills, and is adept at revealing the personality of his subject in his works."

Yan's next project may be contemporary conductor Chen Xieyang, or the woman writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing, 1920-1995). "Creating portraits of deceased celebrities is the most difficult, as I have to form a three-dimensional image from two-dimensional pictures. That involves interviewing relatives and friends in order to achieve the optimal likeness not only in outlook but also in spirit," says Yan.

"I plan to make one sculpture of a celebrity each year. I've been making sculptures for 40 years and I want to do it for another 40 years, until I am 100 years old," he says. "For each portrait I create, I experience the process of talking with the subject's soul, probing his mind, being impelled by and appreciating of his art."

Yan is especially fortunate, as his job allows him to focus on creating his sculptures without the usual artists' concern over finances.

Portraits are just one part of what Yan does well. Next month, one of his new works, the "Life," will be on display at the Shanghai Art Fair. The sculpture features nine figures done around a more than 2-meter-high clay cone. The figures, topped by a woman holding an infant high in both hands, twist around and in different poses. "The theme of this sculpture is the circle of life and people's longing for life. Faced with the frustrations of human life, someone is eliminated, someone survives, and goes on struggling. The infant on the top represents the hope of life," says Yan. After four decades, Yan is planning his first solo sculpture exhibition to be held at the end of this year or early next year.

"Recognition is not all that important to me," Yan says. "Chen Yifei was my school-mate, and I don't have the fame that he has because honestly, I don't care about such things. People may not understand that, but I do hope that through my exhibits, they will understand my work."

(Eastday.com September 18, 2002)

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