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One of China’s most renowned contemporary artists, Luo Zhongli challenged the political appropriation of art during the Cultural Revolution with a return to realism

By Qiu Guangyu Updated Nov.1

At the end of June, a cool, older gentleman wearing sunglasses and a black T-shirt entered Tang Contemporary Art, a gallery in the 798 Art District of Beijing. The gallery was exhibiting Back to the Beginning: A Luo Zhongli Retrospective Exhibition 1965-2022. Unlike his art, no one had noticed Luo’s arrival. 

Luo Zhongli’s photorealistic oil painting, Father, first exhibited at the Second National Youth Exhibition in 1980, had drawn national attention. People were astonished to see a peasant’s face rendered so vividly and realistically on such a large canvas. Many were unprepared for such realism and humanity in art. The painting, regarded as a milestone of Chinese contemporary art, made Luo’s career and heralded China’s avant-garde movements of the 1980s. 

One of the most famous contemporary artists in China, Luo lives a quiet life and rarely agrees to interviews. Witty, hilarious and free-spirited, the Chongqing-born artist has been exploring different styles and innovative art mediums. But his subjects remain the same – the people of the remote Daba Mountains of Sichuan Province.

Father Figure
The portrait Father is striking. On a 2.16 by 1.52-meter canvas, an elderly peasant holds a broken bowl, facing forward. Dark-skinned and weather-beaten, he wears a white headwrap. 

In previous decades, large portraits were reserved for historic figures and heroes. In the 1970s, they were exclusive to State leaders. 

Luo’s painting was unprecedented – and rebellious. Luo, then 33, was training in oil painting at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (SFAI). 

Luo met his subject in the Daba Mountains, where he guarded a manure pit. As chemical fertilizer was unavailable, people guarded their own manure pits. Luo met him on the snowy Lunar New Year’s Eve of 1975. 

“That day, a middle-aged peasant was guarding the manure pit near my home. In the morning I noticed he was shivering in the snow. Hands in pockets, he silently leaned on the wall in a typical peasant’s style, looking numb and bored,” Luo wrote in Art magazine in 1981. “When night fell, I saw him still standing there under the dim lamplight. The winter cold forced him to curl up by the wall in the pit’s corner, his eyes... fixed on the pit. At that moment, my heart surged with a powerful feeling... I wanted to yell to him.” 

At the time Luo started this piece, China had seen an influx of Western art. He and his peers were engrossed in avant-garde ideas and techniques from around the world. Luo found hyperrealism, led by American artist Chuck Close that features photorealistic portraits or sculptures highlighting every minute detail of the subject. Luo adopted this technique for his piece. 

In the sanctioned socialist art of the time, artists were limited to depicting peasants as happy, strong and healthy. Propaganda posters show farmers cheerfully working with agricultural machinery to illustrate China’s technological progress. The poverty and famine rampant in the countryside, however, was never represented in art. 

Father’s rawness challenged this decades-old trend. His photorealistic approach highlights every minute detail of the subject: the dirt, sweat and age spots across the old man’s face; a raised brown mole on the left side of his nose (often referred to as “the mole of suffering” in rural China); a single tooth in his half-opened mouth; muddy fingernails; a grain kernel stuck in the bandage on his left index finger. 

Submitted to the Sichuan Artists Association in 1980 for approval, experts were dumbfounded. They had not seen a work like it in years. One expert told Luo to change the cigarette tucked behind the man’s left ear to a ballpoint pen, suggesting he is an educated peasant of New China. Luo acquiesced. 

Father won first prize at the Second National Youth Art Exhibition, and it appeared on the cover of the first issue of Art magazine in 1981. 

But its recognition stirred controversy. Art critic Shao Yangde criticized it for “smearing the overall image of Chinese peasants” and “not showing the recent changes of rural people in New China.” The ballpoint pen also drew discussions, with many calling the addition “inappropriate.”

Big Bro Luo
Luo’s father, a textile factory worker and an amateur painter who often brought his children on outings to sketch landscapes initially sparked Luo’s interest in art. As a kid, Luo enjoyed drawing comics. He was keen on observing people from all walks of life and adding them to his comic strips in little notebooks. 

Luo graduated from the middle school attached to the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (SFAI) in 1964. However, his education was cut short by the Sent-down Youth Movement, which saw millions of urban educated youths sent to the countryside to work in the 1960s and 70s. Then in 1966, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) began. All college enrollment ceased for the next decade. 

In 1968, 20-year-old Luo was sent to a steel factory in the remote Daba Mountains of Sichuan Province, where he worked as a repairman for the next decade. He still sketched people – mostly workers and peasants of the Daba Mountains. However, Luo could not publish these works. Instead, he did large portraits of State leaders and illustrated children’s books. 

After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, China resumed university student recruitment the following year. Luo, by then 29, was admitted to the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. He was the oldest student in his class. 

The school’s classes of 1977 and of 1978 spawned a series of influential artists in Chinese contemporary art, including Gao Xiaohua, He Duoling, Cheng Conglin and Zhang Xiaogang. 

Luo’s Father, along with paintings by classmates Gao Xiaohua and He Duoling are representative works of Chinese Scar Art, a genre that emerged during the late 1970s that shunned political and ideological propaganda to reveal the individuality and humanity of ordinary people. 

Gao Xiaohua’s oil painting Why? (1978) portrays several young Red Guards wounded after a violent fight. They sit and lie on the ground, exhausted and defeated, wearing gazes that question what they had been fighting for. He Duoling’s Spring Breeze Has Awakened (1981) depicts a bucolic spring day, where a young village girl, accompanied by a dog and an ox, sits in the grass while lost in thought. 

Artist Yang Qian told NewsChina that since Luo Zhongli and He Duoling were older and more experienced, classmates called them “big bros.” Yang said He Duoling was a romantic who often shared stories from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Romain Rolland’s Jean- Christophe and whistled melodies by Beethoven or Mozart. 

Luo Zhongli was different. “He was wild, raw and hilarious. He was always full of jokes and laughter,” artist Qin Ming said.  

Luo said his teachers appointed him as class monitor in an attempt to rein him in. “They chose the most mischievous student in class to become a monitor to better discipline me, right?” Luo joked. 

But recognition for Father improved his reputation. The work not only brought Luo fame and awards but also a cash prize of 450 yuan (US$66), a sizeable sum at that time. 

Luo remembers how his classmates teased him about his success. “Luo had some damn good luck. Now he has to treat the class to a bang-up meal!” Luo said with a laugh. After he received the prize money, he did exactly that.

Return to Roots
In 1984, Luo, then an associate professor at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, was chosen for a three-year program at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in Belgium. In his absence, the New Wave Movement upended China’s art world. 

The avant-garde movement from 1985 to 1989 saw young artists influenced by Western modernism reinventing China’s artistic lexicon and contemporary art, which had eroded after decades of political turmoil. The New Wave Movement was the vanguard of a greater cultural movement that embraced humanism and individuality across all mediums, even pop culture. 

“If I were in China at the time, I would have had rushed to the frontline,” Luo told NewsChina. 

But in Europe, he could see the original masterworks that he had studied for years. He saved his money to visit as many galleries and museums as he could. 

The distance from China provided Luo with a unique perspective of the changes happening at home. Luo felt China’s oil painting education system was based on imitation of Western traditions. Artists from China often worked in Western aesthetics to gain attention in the West, Luo said. 

From his perspective, finding unique artistic languages were key issues every contemporary Chinese artist faces. “After I returned to China [in 1986], I tried hard to find a way back to cultural and folk traditions, back to our cultural roots,” the artist told NewsChina. 

Luo followed Father with photorealistic works on similar themes, such as The Spring Silkworms, which depicts a gray-haired woman sorting a batch of silkworms with wrinkled hands. In another piece, The Golden Autumn, an elderly peasant plays the suona, a traditional double-reeded instrument. 

But in his middle and later works, Luo abandoned photorealism for more daring styles. He chose extremely bright colors, exaggerated forms and rough lines, drawing from the folk arts of the Daba Mountains such as stone carving, wood carving, clay sculpturing, paper cutting, dyeing and embroidery. 

What remained consistent was his choice of subject, everyday scenes of rural people of the Daba Mountains. 

“These most mundane rural scenes – a peasant getting up in the middle of the night to pee, a villager crossing a river or people taking shelter from the rain – burst with primitive vitality,” art critic Wang Lin commented. 

“The innocence of life, unusual folk traditions, strong vitality and exaggerated emotions – all create wild folk images in Luo’s art,” he added. 

Visitors take photos of Luo Zhongli's Father at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, June 24, 2021

A view of Luo Zhongli Gallery in Chongqing, May 16, 2017