(Chinese, B. 1948)
Homeland-A Path in the Village
signed in Chinese; signed 'Luo Zhongli' in Pinyin; dated '1990' (lower right); signed and titled in Chinese; dated '1990.3' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
52 x 71.8 cm. (20 1/2 x 28 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1990
Christie's Hong Kong, 1 November 1999, Lot 305
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Felix Yip

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Lot Essay

In 1977, Luo Zhongli was enrolled in the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, a time when China was undergoing economic and social reforms, transitioning into a more open-minded society. Trauma, a short story by Lu Xinhua published in a Shanghai newspaper Wenhui, exposed the miseries and disasters of the Cultural Revolution. His literature encouraged people to revisit the values of humanism, rationality and truth that had largely been forsaken during the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution. In this new cultural atmosphere, a spirit of independence prevailed in art academies. Students found new courage to confront and reexamine the misfortunes of history and reflected it in their works. In 1980, Luo Zhongli created his seminal painting, Father (Fig. 1). This photo-realistic painting instigated the "Scar Art" movement, and also aroused a wave of realistic portrayals seeking to reveal the truth of experience and the nation's forgotten folk life. A similar trend can be seen in other critical historic and art historic periods. During the Weimar Period in Germany, artists unveiled the fierceness and cruelty in general society and the war (Fig. 2). Luo Zhongli's artistic language is not as violent and radical as the German Expressionist, but he nonetheless opened up a new path in Chinese art history, inspiring his peers and successors to think critically about the complicated relationship between the individual and society, and to express their independent interpretations of history and truth in art. He invoked artists to become more aware of their responsibilities towards shaping and representing history. This very same avant-garde awakening can be seen in the works in Chen Danqing, Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui and Ye Yongqing as well. All of these artists were inspired to draw from their observations in Guishan in Yunnan Province, an experience which allowed them to break free from the old political propaganda clich?s as they related to depicting the peasantry; instead, these artists simply depicted peasants as the way they were in real life, and in this simple gesture attempted to display their own fundamental respect for their lives, hardships and triumphs alike.
The year of 1983 could be viewed as a turning point of Luo's career. While still embracing a strong affection for his hometown-the countryside in Daba Mountains -- Luo's works transtioned from intensely realistic portraits, like Father, into humble and sympathetic depictions of country life. In this way, he presented the living condition of Chinese peasants realistically. By focusing on the quotidian scenes of daily life, Luo extolled the peasants' composure and tenacity against the hardship and bitterness of their lives and circumstances. Weighting (Lot 1148) was created in 1984. In the painting, a crowd of villagers gather around a farmhouse to weigh a newborn. The plump baby is waves and kicks in the steelyard, wrapped with a red cloth, basked in a soft golden aura. The parents' contented faces shine in the light above. Old and young neighbors lean forward to take a closer look. Luo vividly presents the pure, real and and spontaneous in peasant life in this warmly toned painting. Luo further amplifies an endearing and harmonious ambience through the inclusion of minor, seemingly extraneous details like a wandering rooster, a kneeling calf and an inquisitive pup. The painting conveys a sense of hope and vitality via the ritual of welcoming the newborn. Luo's robust figures are strong in build and resemble those of Pieter Bruegel, the sixteenth century Belgian painter of peasant life (Fig. 3). Also created in 1984, The Grind (Lot 1150) has a simple but powerful composition, depicting the shared labor of milling flour between an elder and younger peasant. Full of energy and tension, the painting expresses the force and beauty as of traditional labor and farm production. The girl in Spring (Lot 1147) is seen leading a buffalo to drinking water by the riverside among flourishing reeds. The buffalo's rough and ridged back is slightly cold in tone. Wrinkles in its neck and body echo with the ripples spreading in the river. On the other side of the river, reeds are swinging in the wind. They are in rich hues as if responding to the colours of the earth in the foreground. The girl carrying a bamboo basket with her back towards the viewer lowers her head while waiting for the buffalo. As Luo depicted the simple details of country life, he subtly elaborated a counter-narrative to those produced in the idealized images that came before.
In the early 1990s, Luo Zhongli's technique shifted, as he began to carve out minute grains within his oils with palette knives in order to express new details. In September (Lot 1151), Homeland-A Path in the Village (Lot 1149) and Girl Looking Back (Brother's Call) (Lot 1152), Luo employs subtle brushstrokes expressing various perceptions of texture like shrubbery, hair, fences, stone walls and the soil. These brushstrokes remind us of the delicate and poetic sentiments found in Christina's World (Fig. 4) by Andrew Wyeth. Unlike the lone and struggling figures in Wyeth's mysterious and haunting realism, Luo's obsession with textural details comes from his care and feeling for expressing the essence of peasant life. Such characteristic brushstrokes become Luo's distinguished style in this period. Created in March, 1990, Homeland-A Path in the Village is part of his Hometown Series. The painting is harmonious and tranquil in composition. Crossed by light white paths and consisting of a foreground reflecting the sky against the paddy field, the composition is divided into four parts by in a smooth and understated manner. The puddle in the foreground is bluish white and cold in tone, reflecting the clear sky in winter. Nevertheless, the paddy field in the diagonal background conveys the softness of agate green. It reflects the trees and the rugged terrace. The painting is clear and pure with subtle brushstrokes. Though without the glorious harvest in autumn or the prosperous cultivation in spring, Luo's meticulous creation manages to present us, honestly and truthfully, with the harmonious and peaceful scenery of the countryside in winter, and moreover, with the tranquility and contentment in ordinaries.
In his realistic paintings, Luo truthfully represents the peasants' real lives, having to work and rest according to sunrise, sunset, and the changes of from season to season. From an urban perspective, he may seem to present a rather nostalgic and sentimental narrative. Girl Looking Back (Brother's Call) was painted in 1990, in which a young shepherdess with cows is lingering on a path in dusk. Luo artfully makes a linkage amongst these four figures through the interaction of their eye contact. With barely grown horns, the calf looks back at the lingering girl with its innocent eyes. The cow alongside also turns slightly, gazing at the calf, while the black buffalo ahead is the only one that walks alone. One by one, the four subjects in the painting seem to be separate, while remaining in close connections with each other, guiding our gaze smoothly through the composition. The detail-driven, dry brushes meticulously depict the textures of hair, the figures' forms, and the branches of the trees. Through Luo's sentimental and soft brushstrokes, the caring and warm feelings between the girl and the cows on their homeward journey at dusk.
Luo Zhongli's obsession with details reflects his close observation of history and society. He hopes that people can remember these parts of history and life that are rapidly disappearing, and remember the emotional and philosophical truth embodied by documentation of those details. The countryside has been a longtime motif in Luo's work. Thus, in the history of contemporary art, Luo acts as a "communicator between the country and the city". He leads us, mostly jaded urbanites, to experience the great cultural and material differences between the city and the country. With him, we recall and appreciate the invaluable customs of the agricultural civilization, even as it disappears before our very eyes.

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