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Brush with history

Updated: 2013-04-21 09:23
By Zhuan Ti (China Daily)

Brush with history


The Oriental (four leaders of the PRC - Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai), 270x780cm, 1993. Photos Provided to China Daily 

Liu Wenxi's art is known to everyone in China - it's on the latest currency

"I have a piece of work that 1.3 billion people have seen," Liu Wenxi says with a smile.

The octogenarian former vice-president of China Artists Association and dean emeritus of Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts, is perhaps best known for painting portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China.

One of the portraits is now printed on the back of the renminbi, the nation's currency.

Born in a small village in Zhejiang province in 1933, Liu demonstrated his talent for art from a very young age.

But it wasn't until he went to the county school that he first time heard the name Leonardo da Vinci, the legendary artist in the Italian Renaissance.

Vinci sounds similar to Wenxi in Chinese.

"Then I thought, since we are both called 'wenxi', why couldn't I become an artist? " he recalled.

Liu's artist dream received a huge boost after his uncle introduced him to Chen Wangdao, then president of Fudan University in Shanghai.

Chen was very impressed by Liu's talent after Liu painted a portrait for him on the spot, so he recommended him to Yucai Middle School.

The school was founded by renowned Chinese educator Tao Xingzhi and was known for nurturing students with artistic talent.

Studies at Yucai left an indelible impact to his life, said Liu.

During the period , Liu saw large numbers of Mao Zedong photos. That paved the way for his future creations.

After graduation, he volunteered to work in Yan'an in Shaanxi province, an important revolutionary base for the Communist Party of China.

The harsh living conditions in Yan'an provided invaluable experience for him to strengthen his will and enrich his life.

"Painters do not consider places for enjoyment. I want to explore human nature through all the hardship," he said.

During his life in Yan'an, Liu collected many vivid stories about Mao through his talks with local villagers.

One of his most famous paintings - Chairman Mao and the Shepherd - was created during the period.

Since then, Liu has spent most of his energy studying the appearance and manners of Mao at different times and has painted his portrait thousands of times.

His enthusiasm even affected his daily life. He wears a light gray suit wherever he goes because Mao wore the same style clothes when he was in Yan'an.

"He just loves the suit. He is reluctant to try on any other clothes," said Chen Guangjian, Liu's wife.

In 1997, when Liu was attending the National People's Congress in Beijing, several workers from China Banknote Printing and Minting Corp, which is in charge of printing money, approached him and asked him to paint a portrait of Chairman Mao for the new set of renminbi.

Liu gladly took on the task and came up with the piece that is now everywhere in China.

Though he now suffers from serious arthritis, Liu said he still paints every day.

"Even until today, I still want to paint Chairman Mao," he said. "I will never be tired of painting him."


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