Sword depicts two identical little girls on opposite sides of a canyon of sorts. Their background is a great expanse of vermilion, with green shrubs edging into the canvas. The arresting view is filled with an underlying sense of danger; as can be felt through the vague outline of portentous hills, and the icy blues of the cliffs below. Thrust into this canvas of peril are the two round-faced little girls, in both their hands are clasped long swords. They stare defiantly at one another, one solitary tear rolling down each of their cheeks.
The composition of the painting plays an important role in representing its sadness. Heavily reminiscent of landscape painting trends from the Song Dynasty, Sword projects the same principles from the time period. In general, Song art was governed by Daoist ideologies that saw humanity for all its frivolity, emphasising the insignificance of mankind in the face of nature and the cosmos at large through vast canvases of landscape, such as can be seen in works like Xia Gui’s Pure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains. Yet perhaps in contrast to this, the Southern Song period also developed a consciousness for the minutiae of the human condition; and where people were exclusively depicted, paintings portrayed intimate scenes of human life. These pieces were set against sparse backgrounds, allowing the focus of the painting to fall on the characters themselves. One can see the beginnings of this technique in Spinning Wheel, a piece by Wang Juzheng, an artist who lived during the latter part of the Northern Song, just as Southern Song interests were emerging.
Similarly, the background in Sword exceptionally borrows from Song styles, and seemingly draws our attention away from its characters’ importance. The background of the piece steals our gaze, dyeing the entire canvas a vibrant orange verging on red, as rich subdued greens frame the piece. And yet, this feigned indifference collapses in the two gleaming teardrops; the stoicism of the little girls dissipating in one moment. The grandness of the piece no doubt allows for a distanced exploration of a realm beyond humanity; yet its grandeur seems also to render the fragility of the little girls all the more simple and particularly heartrending.
The execution of the painting is also a curious blend of East-meets- West. While the style of the painting is intensely Asian and looks back to a strong history of Chinese art, Western styles of shading and shaping are employed to convey such things as the fleeciness of the treetops or the jagged coldness of the blades. The youth of the girls’ faces is reflected by the suppleness of their skin and by the glowing sheen on their cheeks. They are doll-like and barely real; two statuettes standing in a scene of isolation. They are also oddly reminiscent of the two female leads in Ang Lee’s award winning film, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon; posed in a showdown of might and skill.
In the mid-90s, Liu returned to China after a four year period of study in Germany; returning during the difficult times China was experiencing. This time of painful changes and social unrest is an unsurprising reason behind the artist’s refuge in a time long-passed; the unreachable “golden time” of his childhood. After experiencing intense loneliness during his study abroad, this sense of sadness is redoubled. When asked by art critic Zhu Zhu whether he felt so lonely during his years in Germany that he began speaking to himself in a mirror, Liu Ye neither affirms nor denies the accusation, instead only cites the poet Bei Dao’s verse, “Speaking Chinese to a mirror”3. Bearing this in mind, the use of reflections or mirrored images in Liu’s works are heavily evocative of this solitary period. The two identical girls in Sword are echoes of this former melancholy, and serve as an insight into the artist’s psyche.
As aforementioned, childhood for Liu is a sanctuary that is out of reach. One of the most frequently used symbols of evoking this childhood is the artist’s use of the colour red. “I came of age in a world covered in red, red suns, red flags, red kerchiefs,”4 reminisced Liu in a dialogue with Zhu Zhu. The colour represents for the artist a distant childhood; of simpler times unsullied by the pains of adulthood. The intensity of the red we find in Sword is a wilful evocation of this time, yet its waning radiance also reminds one of a setting sun, as if the sobering blues of adulthood are slowly creeping into the canvas via the cobalt vines of the cliffs below.
More so than anything else, Sword is a candid expression of the pains of adulthood. In spite of their childlike demeanours, braided plaits and schoolgirl uniforms, Liu’s girls are maturing. Much like Balthus’ young female figures, they are on the cusp of adulthood, plunged into a violence that they don’t quite understand. Such violence can be found in works such as The Room (1952), where there is also an unnerving, latent sense of the erotic prevalent in the piece. Balthus’ heroines seem powerless in his depictions of them, entirely unaware of the questionable postures they are placed in. Likewise, Liu’s protagonists in Sword seem ignorant of the dangers the weapons in their hands represent. So unwilling do they seem to fight, yet the fight seems inevitable somehow; as if this fight to the death is symbolic of a farewell to their childhoods.
“I always feel that I live every moment in a fairy tale world,”5 Liu once said. When we inspect Sword, this sense of the fairy tale world takes a dark turn. Although the elements are all present—the nebulous, fantastical backdrop, the school-skirt-wearing girls, and the unashamed wash of red— this particular Liu Ye piece contrasts heavily with its light-hearted
companions. Although Sword is still reliant on the same whimsical components that make up so many of the artist’s works, it seems conscious of the finite amount of time childhood has, giving us a glimmer into the artist’s inner world.
1 “Questions and Answers, Leng Lin and Liu Ye”, Liu Ye, Mingjingdi Gallery, 1997, p.42
2 Refer to 1
3 Zhu Zhu, “Beginning with Leni Riefenstahl: Interviewing Liu Ye”, Today, 2008
4 “Zhu Zhu: An Aged Childhood”, Liu Ye: mit Essays von Bernhard Fibicher und Zhu
Zhu, Kunstmuseum Bern, 2007, p.75
5 Refer to 1
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