Figuring out the human soul
By Lin Qi | China Daily
Updated: May 30, 2019
An ongoing exhibition pays tribute to the work of eminent sculptor Wu Weishan, Lin Qi reports.
Over the past three decades, Wu Weishan, 57, director of the National Art Museum of China and an eminent sculptor in his own right, has been profiling the soul of society by producing sculptures of people considered to be the greatest minds in Chinese history.
He has achieved prominence for adopting an approach of "sculpting the spirit" which is grounded in Chinese aesthetics. His works, either transmitting solemn beauty or the joy of daily life, demonstrate a balance of intricacy between the subject's figurative and spiritual resemblance, awing audiences both at home and abroad.
Wu has produced around 500 statues, some of which are installed in prominent places around the world, including museums, schools, city parks and squares. Now, visitors to the ground floor of Beijing's National Museum of China will find themselves able to embark upon an extensive journey through Wu's career and peek into the mind of the sculptor, by placing themselves among a selection of 179 sculptures from Wu's oeuvre.
The exhibition, titled Sculpting the Souls, which runs through June, navigates a personal take on the world, from the past to the present, from East to West, and from nature to the various aspects of society.
It features figures ranging from a wide social spectrum, from both past and present. Among them are the revolutionaries Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Mao Zedong, while ancient philosophers, such as Confucius and Laozi, stand alongside scientist and Nobel laureate, C.N. Yang. Foreigners who have furthered China's exchanges with the world, like the Italian priest, Matteo Ricci and his famous countryman, the explorer Marco Polo, are also immortalized by Wu.
The artist also depicts heartfelt moments in people's day-to-day lives through sculptures that show sleeping children and intimacy between mothers and their offspring.
The largest piece on show rises up to 7 meters and the smallest one is no more than 6 centimeters in height.
"I've been doing sculptures for nearly four decades. My progress from a student of art to a teacher, a sculptor, a researcher and a participant in China's cultural exchanges with the international community coincides with the advancing course of China's reform and opening-up," Wu tells China Daily.
"Over the years, my work has been centered around China and the luminaries of Chinese history, especially the intellectuals. Every one of these great men is a landmark to the hardships and glories of a nation and, together, they have shaped history."
Wu says he began sculpting prominent historic figures in the 1990s, out of respect for these who represent the consciousness of the nation.
He says that, at the time, he felt that many young people knew little about the scientists, artists, writers and thinkers, and "forgetting them means that one is ignorant of his nation's history, his people's contribution to human society and men's wisdom".
"For me, to sculpt these people is to build the monuments of history, ensuring that they are admired, valued and followed by young people."
As Wu's work began to strike a chord with Chinese people, his sculptures also began traveling to different countries to "allow the world to understand China, especially Chinese people's cultural values", he says.
On May 2, Wu's work A Dialogue Across the Time, which depicts Italian Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, and modern Chinese artist, Qi Baishi, was unveiled at the 450-year-old Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in Florence. The work was added to the academy's permanent collection in remembrance of the 500th anniversary of da Vinci's death. It also marked a ceremony at which Wu was enrolled as an honorary member of the academy.
Statues of Karl Max and Frederick Engels on show at Wu's exhibition.[Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily
Two days later, his bronze relief titled Centennial Monument was unveiled at a square in the French commune of Montargis where, a century ago, dozens of Chinese youths arrived as part of a work-study program to live and learn techniques and advanced thoughts to empower their home country.
Wu's work portrays several representatives of the group: some later became revolutionaries and politicians, such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping; some became achievers in science, the arts or literature, such as modern artist, Xu Beihong.
"This shows a group of young people who are ambitious and vigorous and aspire to reform China and the world," Wu said at the relief's unveiling ceremony.
Stephen A. Orlins, president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, recently visited Wu's exhibition at the National Museum.
"Professor Wu's sculptures convey the breadth and depth of China's history, philosophy and the Chinese spirit to the visitor," Orlins says. "The larger-than-life depictions of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and many other legendary Chinese philosophers remind the observer of China's lengthy and diverse philosophical traditions."
Orlins says he has a Wu sculpture of a child in his living room. He adds that the climax of Wu's exhibition is "the moving and deeply disturbing sculptures depicting the human horror" of the Nanjing massacre.
"You see it on the sculpted faces of the victims. They, along with the rest of the exhibits, remind us that we must remember history to avoid repeating it."