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Liu Yaming: Great artwork helps personal self-discovery

By WU HE | 2016-12-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Liu Yaming is a professional painter. Born in 1962 in Sichuan Province, he studied in the Department of Film Studies at Beijing Film Academy in 1986 and worked as the artist and art designer for some popular Chinese TV series. In 1994, Liu was invited to display his artwork at Riffe Gallery in Columbus, Ohio. After his huge oil paintings Fable of Our Time and The Vault of Heaven’s Eye were respectively exhibited in National Art Museum of China and during the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2015, they became popular nationwide and sparked heated discussion.


Some time earlier, by chance I watched a CCTV program titled People. The program called the giant oil painting Fable of Our Time a shocking epic portrait of contemporary social groups. The creator of the painting Liu Yaming was thus called “the thinker of color.” Later, news about Liu continued: In the Spring of 2015, another huge oil painting of his The Vault of Heaven’s Eye premiered at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2015 and was lauded by domestic and foreign audiences. On July 25 and Aug 9, the Fable of Our Time and The Vault of Heaven’s Eye were respectively displayed on the NASDAQ MarketSite screen at Times Square in New York City.


Recently, a CSST reporter came to Liu Yaming’s studio and had a dialogue with him.


CSST: Standing before your huge paintings makes me feel small. Though psychologically prepared for this, I feel it more grand and magnificent than I thought. Only speaking of the dimension, the length and height of the Fable of Our Time are respectively 12 meters and 9 meters, which is actually unusual. So what motivated you to dedicate yourself to such a “grand narrative?”


Liu Yaming: To me, I feel the dimensions are within the boundaries of normality. The fact that China is a great power and we are living in an era of grandness both call for paintings that are large in dimension, which is the key to making a masterpiece possible.

What prompted me to paint huge paintings was that when I had my personal exhibition in America in 1994, I watched a touring showcase of Flanders paintings and a number of other large paintings housed in the museums. I was deeply impressed by them, especially ones by post-Renaissance masters represented by Peter Paul Rubens and his disciple Jacob Jordaens whose painting style is characterized by immensity. Later on, I viewed the paintings by Michelangelo, Velazquez and other European masters in Italy, France and Netherland, as well as the ones by Russian artists in Saint Petersburg. I spent quite a long time journeying around the major museums all over the world, appreciating the paintings of past masters over and over again.


CSST: Viewing your paintings from a distance, I get a strong stereoscopic impression.


Liu Yaming: For large paintings, unique structure and grand style are indispensable. It is far from being sufficiently powerful if you just amplify the dimension of the painting like one would do with arithmetic addition, which is also like writing short stories and novels: Simply putting short stories together does not make a novel. Take Tolstoy’s War and Peace for an example. Apart from grand structure and framework, each character’s personality and what is inside them is delicately portrayed. A great painting, similar as the novel and orchestra, is multi-layered, all-dimensional and stereoscopic.

When I first saw Rembrandt’s work, I felt that his paintings are full of artistic brilliance that radiates deep from within the soul. David’s The Coronation of Napoleon and Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, when I first saw them in the Louvre Museum, left a deep impression on me with their sublimity and intrinsic strength. At that time, I made up my mind that I would aspire to also paint this way—to create a massive, impressive display of power and influence through the depiction of a large amount of figures. In addition, the work needs to be edifying in that it is conducive to helping get back the long lost sense of sacredness and loftiness for our culture. These are things we respected a lot in the past that are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture but are now fading because of people’s increasing disregard for them.


CSST: But have you ever thought that the tremendous time and energy consumed by finishing such giant paintings will not necessarily pay off in terms of their market popularity?


Liu Yaming: What originally prompted me to create oil paintings is my concern over a good deal of social problems, our contemporary living environment and the destiny of human beings as a whole. I have too many misgivings that need to be unleashed. As for the works’ market popularity—I don’t consider that much.

It is an artist’s responsibility to get to know society, to convey the basic ethos of society, especially as it has been in the past more than 30 years since the reform and opening up policy was first implemented.


CSST: As early as the 1990s, you became popular for portraiture in Beijing and there were some media reports about you. In September this year, the “2016 Exhibition of Liu Yaming’s Portraiture” hosted in Beijing demonstrated your ability to draw portraits. I visited the exhibition and my feeling was that you not only captured the appearance of the characters but also, more importantly, the inner activity of human beings. I think that it is relatively easy to draw just one or several characters, but it must be quite hard to draw a large number of people like you do with your oil painting.


Liu Yaming: The characters that are discernable in my painting Fable of Our Time total as many as 160, and those in The Vault of Heaven’s Eye also total more than a hundred. The Human Comedy that I am now creating will have more than 1,000 figures. That is why Fable of Our Time and The Vault of Heaven’s Eye respectively took me two years and four years to finish. There is a correspondence between the characters in my paintings and their social class, status and personality, which could help me portray the figures in the paintings in a more delicate way.

I hope to embody the genuine looks and ethos of our time through the canvas. Therefore, the people that I chose to paint are representative. I try my best to include people from all walks of life on the canvas, so that when we stand before the painting, we could catch a glimpse  of ourselves. Only self-discovery in the painting can bring about a sense of personal resonance, which could make one reflect upon his or her inner world. That is why when the Fable of Our Time was exhibited in the National Art Museum of China, the work was considered by many as educational.

The most fundamental spiritual outlook and deep psychological status can be seen in one’s face. The Chinese proverb that “One’s face is shaped by one’s heart” does make a lot of sense. A man who plays tricks all day long must have a tricky face. Some 30-year-old people, being sly old fish, have the look of a 50-year-old, whose craftiness and cunning is hard to conceal because it would be acutely discerned by those smart “hunters.” I have been interested in portraying people. I like observing people and understanding people, so I never stop painting people.


CSST: Do the figures in the pictures have the models that are correspondent to each of them?


Liu Yaming: Basically there is a correspondence, because I believe art needs sincerity and truth. Therefore, I often go outside for travels. Some say that I travel to experience folk customs so as to sketch from nature and on the spot, but I told them that I didn’t sketch a stroke actually, at most that I casually took a picture with a camera or even just a mobile phone. What I mainly do is to chat with others because I hope to know about what is on most people’s minds. Therefore, I often chat with some strangers in a teahouse, a station or a village about their living conditions, their perception of life, people, events and the pressure they endure from living, as well as what has changed in their life in comparison with the past.

I believe that painting is a job that requires a complex set of elements. Without noble character and the ability to think independently, without high tenacity and a love for life, without great empathy with human destiny and profound understanding of society and a precise grasp of overall social trends, how could a masterpiece be possible?


CSST: I have got the impression that most of the people in your paintings need to be saved.


Liu Yaming: Right. Not only that the persons need to be saved—this is also true for our planet and environment. The core is that the souls of human beings need to be salvaged. There is across-the-board materialism nowadays and it is such a ceaseless rapacity for possessing material things that has wreaked great havoc on vegetation, the atmosphere, water and even mankind themselves. The interrelations between individuals are now defined by competition, which has replaced love and both our humanistic and natural environments face challenges that are unprecedented—this is what prompts me to keep pondering our style of living today.