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An expressive journey

Shi Lu paints a lotus flower, 1981. Image courtesy of Shi Lu’s family
Shi Lu, Fighting in northern Shaanxi, 1959, Chinese painting on paper. National Museum of China, gift of Shi Lu's family, 2012
Shi Lu, A girl hoeing grain, 1963, Chinese painting on paper. National Museum of China, gift of Shi Lu's family, 2012
Shi Lu, An ancient castle, 1955 (revised 1970), Chinese painting on paper. National Museum of China, gift of Shi Lu's family, 2012
Shi Lu, An old horse, 1973, Chinese painting on paper. National Museum of China, gift of Shi Lu's family, 2012
Shi Lu, Harvesting the hay, 1964, Chinese painting on paper. National Museum of China, gift of Shi Lu's family, 2012
Mark Amery on art and cultural diplomacy at Te Papa with a visit from China.

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Mark Amery on art and cultural diplomacy at Te Papa with a visit from China.

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The foyer is hung with Chinese lanterns, while pictured down the stairs is a roar of a red dragon. Up at the ticket counter I learn it’s impossible to see by itself exhibition Shi Lu: A Revolution in Paint. I must first proceed through Throne of Emporers. I dutifully pay my ten dollars, my ticket stamped with one word in red bold type: China.

Throne is full of glorious, inspiring objects dating as far back as 200 years before Christ. From small character-filled terracotta figures to the most stylish man-robe I’ve ever seen. This is China as cradle of creativity. A welcome history lesson told through invention. I’m reminded that China brought us everything from tea and gunpowder to moveable type.

On the wall certain titles leap out: China’s great expansion, Reaching Out. How very contemporary. “It’s all very political,” offers up an attendant when I ask where the exhibition comes from. “The National Museum of China and the National Museum of New Zealand. This wouldn’t be happening if obviously both government’s didn’t think it was a good idea.”  I rather think the Chinese have the upper hand. I start to feel uncomfortable about those ten dollars.

But I’ve come to see Shi Lu, a painter whose work and life story is tensioned by that of the Chinese Revolution. The National Museum of China was once called the Museum of Revolutionary History. If you haven’t been thinking about how wedded art, cultural diplomacy and politics are before you will be now.

Exiting out the back door of Throne, you cross a bridge and are met by another attendant, who again takes your ticket. The exhibition is in a new space that not so long ago was a very fine public library.

I, like I suspect most New Zealanders know little of Shi Lu. First impressions from early work aren’t encouraging. The exhibition could have done with a prune, with much indifferent work amongst the strong. I found myself asking why we weren’t being offered a wider look at modern Chinese art, or the vital contemporary scene that has erupted in recent decades. Ultimately, however Shi Lu’s powerful expressive journey with his brush wins out.

In 1939 a young Shi Lu journeyed to Shannxi province, the birthplace of communism to join the cause. His early work follows communist approved styles, social realist portraiture and scenes that have little distinctive spark.

In the 1950s things start to get more interesting, if awkward. He works to reinvigorate ‘guohua’, the Chinese traditional landscape tradition by combining it with scenes of human industry. The brooding hulks of a grand landscape dwarf small figures, while elevating their nobility. Often the blend between abstraction and the illustrative is clumsy, the style chaotic. But then in the early 1960s you start to see the artist find his own space: a conveyance of competing fierce natural energies through blotchy and rippling textural patterns. The human is in thrall to something far bigger. Suddenly the chaos has found its own organic life and rhythm in ink. As Chi Lu humself writes, he uses “the spirit of the objects to paint the shape”.

By the late 1950s Chi Lu had become one of the most favoured of China’s painters, commissioned to produce a work commemorating the 10th anniversary of the forming of the People’s Republic: the impressive Fighting in Northern Shannxi, featuring Mao in the mountains atop a rocky crag. His refusal to drop the revival of traditional painting however, and criticism of the politics of the revolution saw him increasingly isolated.

By the time of the Cultural Revolution Chi Lu was imprisoned and sentenced to death as a ‘counter revolutionary’ criminal. Only schizophrenia and a diagnosis of insanity saved him. The works that follow are quite remarkable. He revisits  1956 work completed in India, doodling obsessively in unintelligible calligraphy and ornate geometric figures over drawings of spiritual figures, like some free visual flowering of the brain. These lead to his 1970s calligraphic scroll paintings. Giving up almost entirely on representation, he lets gestures with ink conduct a wild almost violent expressive dance down the paper. Movement that is magnetic in its freeness.

At the same time as he was being denounced Chi Lu is said to have drawn with his toes while making gestures in the air. This exhibition is testament to the strength of the creative spirit to struggle with change and ultimately endure.

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Written by

Mark Amery

22 May 2014

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.