Bruno Walpoth's first solo exhibition in Asia

The exhibition is the first of its kind in Asia gathering 47 pieces of sculpture and drawings by the artist. More than half are new productions made between 2016 and 2018.

In Roman poet Ovid’s “Metam-orphoses,” Pygmalion, a Cypriot sculptor, fell in love with the ivory woman he sculpted. His affection was so real that his wish moved Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, who brought the statue to life.

In a similar vein, Bruno Walpoth, an Italian wood sculptor whose works are being exhibited at the Zhejiang Art Museum in Hangzhou, has always been reluctant to part with his sculpture once it was finished and to hand it over to someone else.

“For me collectors are very important,” said Walpoth. “I need to know where it (my work) finally is. Although I cannot choose (my collectors) entirely at my will, I have always hoped that I can see my pieces often afterwards.”

Ti Gong

A visitor takes a close look at “Amiche” (Friends) made of maple wood.

At one time he actually redeemed a piece, at a much higher price, from a collector who purchased it five years ago.

This time he was invited to produce a venue-specific piece for the Zhejiang Art Museum during his art residence in Hangzhou. To find the right Chinese model for the project, the museum launched an open search online which attracted nearly 300 applications within eight days.

The final candidate selected by the artist was the 24-year-old high fashion model Xiang Yejing from Hangzhou.

“I was really excited since it was the first time I worked with a model from Asia. In my eyes, she is the most beautiful among all and also perfect to make a sculpture,” added Walpoth.

For two weeks, Xiang checked in every day from 9:30am to 5:30pm at the artist’s studio on the southwestern outskirts of Hangzhou. They exchanged opinions about many things, including what kind of faces could be identified as Chinese.

“I was there from day one seeing how it was made, bit by bit. So I am not surprised to see the result. But I never expected it to be such a hard labor,” Xiang told Shanghai Daily.

“You need to stand there carving all day, to make wood into the human shape, to seize an eye contact and express your own sentiment.”

The life-size statue is placed on a black plinth, showing an eyesight in alignment with that of the viewers. The attire is reduced to minimum. The girl seems to be frowning slightly, being absorbed in her own perplexity.

The melancholy and serenity in the face, which you can say is unique to the model but at the same time ubiquitous in all young adults, is what makes Walpoth’s work distinctive.

Along with the sculpture, three video installations are presented as a footnote to the work. Susie Au, director of the videos, said she followed through the whole process. Every move on the wood has been recorded in close-up including the hammering, the polishing, the engraving and the drawing, as well as the sawdust and chippings flying off in the sunlight.

“The sculptor is good at capturing a mood in the air. So I tried to make one second in the studio to look like a lifelong story,” explained Au.

Ti Gong

Sculptor Bruno Walpoth checks up on his sculpture works at his studio in northern Italy.

Born and raised in the northern valleys bordering Austria and Germany, Walpoth has a deep-rooted relation with the local wood carving tradition which has lasted for more than 300 years.

Both his grandfather and his uncle were wood sculptors whom he took as role models. At the age of 14, he began a five-year apprenticeship with a local wood carving master who mainly focused on religious assignments.

When he realized that he had no interest in the subject, he left for studying sculpture at Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany. For the first three years there he tried to break away with the training he had received, and experimented with all kinds of materials.

“I was very afraid that I would be restricted by tradition,” said the artist.

Upon graduation he returned to his hometown and taught at a local art school for 22 years before he resigned and became finally committed to his own art production.

To recreate a human body out of a single piece of wood, Walpoth usually needs two months to figure out how to work with the grain and produce a surface that is almost breathing like the human skin.

Shu Wenjing, curator of the show, says that he never uses any assistant. The artist does all the work by himself, from choosing a lime or walnut tree, to logging, barking and carrying the trunk back to the studio.

The strength of such silence and seclusion embodied in his sculpture is quite powerful.

Walpoth emphasized to Shanghai Daily what he did was not a realistic portrayal but contemporary art, where the psyche a work has conveyed is much more significant than its physical form.

“My first carve inside that workshop in the small Italian village surely makes me who I am today. But my experience at the art college changed my style and allowed me to find my own way as an artist,” said Walpoth.

“I took much inspiration from observing the works of early Renaissance artists, not someone as big as Michelangelo, but those lesser known such as painter Piero della Francesca and sculptors Francesco Laurana and Bernardo Rossellino.”

The exhibition, the first of its kind in Asia, gathers 47 pieces of sculpture and drawings of the artist. More than half are new productions made between 2016 and 2018. After Hangzhou, they will be exhibited at the Art Museum Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing next March.

“Walpoth’s work, which has grown out of the tradition of local artisan and religious art and become successful contemporary art, has a very strong implication for sculptors in China,” said Ying Jinfei, vice director of the museum.

“We also have a very long history of wood carving art, but the techniques and tradition of such has been forgotten and segregated from the modern sculpture landscape.”

Date: Through December 23

Address: 138 Nanshan Rd

Admission: Free

Zhejiang Art Museum

Xiang Yejing, 24, becomes the model for Bruno Walpoth’s new work, which is now being exhibited together with 46 others at Zhejiang Art Museum. 

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