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DAVID SMITH: China Medal Commission

About three years after exhibiting his seminal Medals for Dishonor, Marian Willard contacted David Smith in the spring of 1943 about an opportunity to create another medal, this time as an award given to Americans for outstanding service to China. Willard was optimistic, writing to Smith that “the order would be well paid. There are others competing, no doubt, but you have the technique cold, compared to other sculptors and I think there is a fine chance.”

Smith’s designs won the approval of T. V. Soong, brother-in-law to Chiang Kai-Shek and head of China Defense Supplies (CDS), an entity of the Chinese government that managed financial aid received from America to aid the war effort against Japan.

CDS decided that the medal would bestow the Order of the Bamboo, to symbolize that which “bends but never breaks.” Otherwise, there were few guidelines given, and Smith was advised to study traditional Chinese text and imagery. He drew up several sketches incorporating a wide array of ideas, including the twelve-pointed star of the Kuomintang; the Han tiger, a symbol of power and strength; and the pine bough, plum blossom, and bamboo, also called the Three Friends of Winter.

Known for his socialist leanings (as expressed in the anti-Fascist imagery of the Medals for Dishonor), one wonders what Smith was thinking while working on a commission supported by the Kuomintang party. By that time, Chiang Kai-Shek’s policies favored the rich elite, putting distance between the government and the lower classes. Although none of Smith’s designs were blatantly subversive, some of his drawings made reference to the farmers and workers through illustrations of rice and grain, the sickle and anvil, and the “hands of China.”

Soong was recalled to China only a few months after Smith received the commission, and progress came to a halt. Ultimately, the medal was never realized, though Smith saved the drawings in the hope that the project would resume at a later date.

Untitled pencil studies for China Medal, 1943. © Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

Verbatim is sponsored by the Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

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