In 1970, the Chinese artist, Shi Lu (1919-1982) locked himself in a small shack beside the family apartment and began revising sketches made in the 1950s. A painting of an ancient Delhi fort became surrounded with red and black inscriptions, an Indian monk was transformed into a ‘spirit king’, and a pair of tranquil, composed figures were elevated to the status of Madonna and child.

The original sketches were made during government sponsored trips to India and Egypt in 1955 and 1956, and had been hailed as ‘model paintings’ at the time. They demonstrated an exquisite fusion of Western drawing and Chinese brushwork, reflecting the political requirement that artists should focus on xiesheng (sketching on the spot). It was believed that through this, artists might be able to reform both the subject and style of guohua (traditional Chinese painting).

Shi Lu was eager to reform guohua. He had studied traditional painting, but was committed to communism, stating ‘my path is to be a revolutionary artist’. Yet walking the fine line between tradition and innovation proved difficult during the 1950s and 1960s, and he constantly sought to balance the often conflicting demands of politics and aesthetics. This came to a head in the 1960s, first with an aesthetic critique of his works which were branded as ‘wild, strange, chaotic and black’, and then with political critique directed at one of his most well-known paintings Fighting in Northern Shaanxi.

This painting was commissioned in 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. It celebrated Chairman Mao Zedong’s achievements and also boldly reimagined traditional landscape painting. This painting marked the pinnacle of Shi Lu’s artistic career but was also his downfall. As the political climate changed, the work was read as a criticism of Mao, isolated and precarious on the edge of a cliff.

Shi Lu’s political fall coincided with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Members of the Red Guard invaded his home and publicly denounced his art. From 1965 to 1969 he was imprisoned and brutally persecuted. Deprived of his human and creative freedoms, he was unable to touch a brush.

It was on his release in 1970 that he shut himself away and revised his travel sketches from Egypt and India, creating his own mystical world of spirit kings and holy sages. While the circumstances that gave rise to these works were undoubtedly traumatic, the results are exquisite.

Some of Shi Lu’s calligraphic additions are unintelligible; other inscriptions can be deciphered. The markings on An ancient castle suggest the fort was built by the scholar Confucius (551–479 BCE) and Lu Ban, a renowned engineer from the same period in China’s early history. Both these historical figures were known for having maintained their integrity in the face of persecution. Shi Lu may have invoked them as a means of boosting his own courage in similarly testing circumstances. And this evocation may have worked, for of the many Chinese artists who were persecuted and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, he was one of the few who managed to continue producing personal art.

Rebecca Rice
Curator Art

This exhibition was jointly developed by the National Museum of China and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa