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Modern Poetry in China: A Visual-Verbal Dynamic By Paul Manfredi

Chapter 1:  Li Jinfa
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Modern Poetry in China:

catch a glimpse of the Roman skyline from above (Chen 1994, 116). In considering this image, it is also important to recall that Li’s training as an artist was principally as a sculptor. His choice of sculpture as an expressive medium, like the decision to go to France in the first place, seems to have come suddenly and radically. In fact, prior to his visit to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and not long after his arrival in France in 1919, Li was planning, albeit tentatively, on a career in chemistry or perhaps aviation. Yet he was so moved “by curiosity” at the sight of a marble sculpture of a woman that he decided on the spot to make this medium his life’s work.5 From his initial arrangements in Dijon, then, Li made arrangements to move to Paris and the famous École des Beaux-Arts to pursue an education in sculpture under supervision of the sculptor Jean Boucher (1870–1939).

The consequences of Li’s sudden decision are what drew him into the role of artist, educator, and cultural broker between East and West.6 Li’s work as a sculptor did not preclude the artist from working in other media, as the previous figure demonstrates. It is worth noting his chosen medium, though, in terms of the requisite attention to the human figure that formal education in sculpture requires. In his recounting of the time of his studies, Li described the daily regimen at the École des Beaux-Arts as one that focused entirely on the human figure: “Without sitting down and working rigorously for two years straight there is no way one can produce even a half-decent semblance of the human form.”7 Such focus on the human body demonstrates a fundamental shift in viewing processes as aesthetic practice (with sociopolitical implications as well).

The self-portrait is not a main feature of Li Jinfa’s work, either verbally or visually. In contrast to a Western tradition, in fact, portraiture, particularly self-portraiture, is an uncommon medium in Chinese art, finding only sporadic if notable instances in the tradition.8 This is not to say that artistic representation of human figures is not a mainstay of Chinese plastic art tradition, in a variety of forms. But portraiture is a distinct species of figural representation, as Dietrich Seckel observed