Shi Lu: The Literatus vs. the Revolutionary

This Friday at 12.30, Professor Yiyan Wang, a specialist of modern Chinese art will share her insights to the work of Shi Lu currently on show at Te Papa. She provides some thoughts on his art in the following blog.

Shi Lu, 自画像, Self-portrait 1951, pencil drawing, Beijing: National Museum of China, reproduced courtesy of Shi Lu’s family.

Shi Lu, 自画像, Self-portrait, 1951, pencil drawing, Beijing: National Museum of China, reproduced courtesy of Shi Lu’s family.

Te Papa Museum is currently showing the paintings and calligraphy of Shi Lu. Who is the artist? What does his art tell us?

Shi Lu (1919- 1982) was born into a rich landowner’s family in a village near Chengdu in Sichuan in the southwest of China. His family name was Feng and his given name was Yaheng. Shi Lu was the name he gave to himself, as Chinese artists and writers usually did, and some still do, in order to express their intellectual identification and artistic aspiration, or even simply to disguise their “true” self to allow for more space in their creativity. In Shi Lu’s case, Shi comes from the artistic name of a landscape painter, Shi Tao (1642 – ca. 1707); and Lu derives from Lu Xun (1881-1936), China’s most prominent writer and critical thinker of the 20th century.

These two figures represent the opposite poles of China’s cultural values at the beginning of the twentieth century. Shi Tao was a literatus and a Buddhist monk, who earnestly sought to distance himself from society and politics. Lu Xun was determinedly against the Confucian tradition and literati elitism. Identification with the two contradicting personalities reflects the opposing attractions of both tradition and modernity to Shi Lu.

Shi Lu was born in 1919, the year when China’s New Cultural Movement, also known as the May Fourth Movement, was in full swing, calling for total cultural renovation for national salvation. The Chinese Communist Party was established in 1921. The next two decades saw enormous social and cultural changes occur in China, including the total transformation of the concept and the practice of art. Like many of the youth of the day, Shi Lu was attracted to communist ideals. After studying at the art school run by his elder brother in Chengdu, in 1940 he went to Yan’an, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party since 1937.

Shi Lu, Down with feudalism, 1949, woodblock print, Beijing: National Museum of China, Gift of Shi Lu’s family 2012

Shi Lu, Down with feudalism, 1949, woodblock print, Beijing: National Museum of China, Gift of Shi Lu’s family 2012

Consequently, Shi Lu’s art was produced according to the instructions of the authorities, which determined that art should serve the communist revolution. The Communist Party also decided what forms and subject matter artists should adopt and required that all artists respond positively to the Party’s ideological needs. Despite his entire artistic career being under the directives of the Chinese Communist Party, he was, however, among the few who were able to find new, effective expressions for the communist revolution in the age-old language of ink-brush painting, which used to be reserved for the lofty ideals of cultural elite.

The central painting by Shi Lu on show at Te Papa is Fighting in Northern Shaanxi (1959), with striking images of the mountaintops typical of the landscape of northern Shaanxi. The composition deliberately puts Mao in the centre of the painting with his back turned towards the viewer. The profile and the posture of Mao are highly recognizable, at least for the Chinese people. The rocks behind and before him serve as platforms to stage the grand leader of the Chinese revolution, highlighting Mao’s ambition to take over China, if not the world.

Shi Lu produced numerous sketches in preparation for Fighting in Northern Shaanxi, experimenting with the composition, brushstrokes, and palette.  Shi Lu, Fighting in Northern Shaanxi, 1959, chinese painting on paper, Beijing: National Museum of China, reproduced courtesy of Shi Lu’s family.

Shi Lu produced numerous sketches in preparation for Fighting in Northern Shaanxi, experimenting with the composition, brushstrokes, and palette. National Museum of China, reproduced courtesy of Shi Lu’s family.

This painting is innovative in at least two aspects: the way the bare, reddish mountaintops unfold from the cliffs rising perpendicularly; the manner in which Mao stands in the centre, appreciating the landscape with hands crossed at the back and head raised to take in the panoramic view. Traditional literati landscape paintings never have landscape with bare rocks only, as literati artists tend to project themselves through their rendering of nature, whether it is landscape, plants, animals or birds. Neither would a “true” artist have emperors, or any “leaders” for that matter, as their pictorial subjects. The composition of the painting, in addition to the artist’s most skilled rendering of Mao’s body language as the helmsman of the Chinese communist revolution, is indeed a “revolution” in paint.

Shi Lu, Horses drinking at Yan River – study from nature, 1960, ink and mineral pigments, Beijing: National Museum of China, Gift of Shi Lu’s family 2012

Shi Lu, Horses drinking at Yan River – study from nature, 1960, ink and mineral pigments, Beijing: National Museum of China, Gift of Shi Lu’s family 2012

Fighting in Northern Shaanxi stood out from many other paintings in awe of Mao in the first decade of the founding of the People’s Republic. Its success soon won Shi Lu another opportunity – to create a painting for the Hall of Shaanxi in the Building of the People’s Congress at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He fulfilled this task with Horses Drinking at the Yan River,1960. It has the symbol of the Yan’an base area – the pagoda – standing upright in the distance with the horses drinking in the foreground. This immediately became another much praised iconic revolutionary landscape. Again, there are no trees or greens in sight and reddish hilltops dominate the panoramic view. Shi Lu thus single handedly created the Chinese Communist landscape in a most concrete and attractive visual language. It resonates the tough, rough and spirited revolutionary aesthetics. In years to come, the Party’s propaganda machine would continue to reinforce the myth that the yellow earth plateau in northern Shaanxi was the birthplace of modern China.

Shi Lu, In response to Shi Tao’s painting, 1960, chinese painting on paper, Beijing: National Museum of China, Gift of Shi Lu’s family 2012

Shi Lu, In response to Shi Tao’s painting, 1960, chinese painting on paper, Beijing: National Museum of China, Gift of Shi Lu’s family 2012

The figurative paintings of Shi Lu largely fall into three basic groups: workers, farmers and ethnics. Apart from the great leader, those were the figures artists were allowed to paint during the Maoist decades. Technically, he tried to incorporate artistic innovations here and there but there remained a profound gap between his sense of aesthetics informed by Chinese cultural traditions and the ideological demands from the Party in those years. The best of all the works in this exhibition, undoubtedly, has to be the imaginary landscape in response to the master that he had always admired –In Response to Shi Tao’s Painting (1960).

©Yiyan Wang, Professor of Chinese, Chinese Programme, Victoria University of Wellington.

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