(Chinese, B. 1948)
Spring Silkworms
signed 'Luo Zhongli' in Chinese; dated '1980.7' (lower right); signed and titled in Chinese; inscribed '(1)' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
oil on canvas
205.7 x 124.5 cm. (81 x 49 in.)
Painted in 1980
Private Collection of Jiang Tiefeng
Fingerhut Gallery, Minneapolis, USA
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1985
Private Collection, Minnesota, USA

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Lot Essay

"The most crucial element in artistic creation lies in "sentiment". The creation should touch not only the artist himself, but also others."
-Luo Zhongli
In the development of contemporary Chinese art, Luo Zhongli stood out among his contemporaries in the 1980s. He insisted in conveying his sincere feelings towards folk life in his paintings. 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 re-examine the misfortunes of history and this was reflected in their works. In 1980, Luo Zhongli created his seminal painting, Father. This photo-realistic painting instigated the "Scar Art" movement, and also aroused a wave of realistic portrayals seeking to reveal the truth and the nation's forgotten folk life.
Father won unprecedented acclaim. He was awarded the National Golden Award, the highest honour in the art scene in China at that time. His work was selected as a permenant collection of the Chinese Art Museum. Spring Silkworms, Pray and other works created in the same period also won the honours of National Silver Awards and Outstanding Awards in the following years. Spring Silkworms (Lot 25) offered in this sale was created in 1980. It shares with Father in both the significance in Luo's artistic development, and the significance as a collection in the museum. Similar to Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Luo attempted perfection through continuous trial and refinement of the same subject. During 1980-1983 he would devote himself to the creation of two large oil paintings titled Spring Silkworms. The efforts the artist dedicated into the series is clearly seen in his drafts with charcoal pencil and oil paints. The artist handwrote "(1)" on the reverse of one piece, signifying it as the first in the series, thereby adding an important historical sense on its strong authenticity.
The breathtaking aura was built in the piece with the combination of deep black background and dramatic light reflections. The old lady was setting her hair when she gazed with her chin lowered at the silkworms having a meal of mulberry leaves. Luo applied detailed, delicate brushstrokes to depict every string of the old lady's needle-like hair, in contrast with the bright red camellia on her chest. Her silver hair suspending in the air induced a sense of eternity in which time and space froze. The tranquil atmopshere of the piece resembled that in Woman Knitting by John Singer Sargent. Squirming silkworms are vivid representation of short and medicore life yet filled with little hopes and brightness. It is these hopes that give peasants courage and persistence to move fowrad even at times of hardship. Luo's dedication towards detail reflected his unending concern and sentiment towards the peasants. Similar to Spring Silkworms, Nonna Rosita Morillo by Frida Kahlo also revealed the artists' deep feelings towards the the countryside folk.
Luo Zhongli set as his main character an old lady, rarely portrayed as main subject of an artwork. In contrast to the optimistic propaganda paintings, Luo portrays a woman with a lowered chin, where we are unable to see her face but rather capturing the valuable humble personality of Chinese peasants. The realistic portrayal force viewers to examine her silver hair, hunched back and countless wrinkles on her forehead and hands, that reflect the hardship peasants experienced in society. Luo successfully brought into light the shocking and sensitive reality which would be taboo during the times of Chinese Economic Reforms.
The breakthroughs Luo underwent in early 1980s not only demonstrated his avant garde and brave spirit, but also established himself at a key position in Chinese art history. Luo 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 through 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 of Chen Danqing, Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui and Ye Yongqing. 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 clichés as they related to depicting the peasantry; instead, these artists simply depicted peasants as they were in real life, and in this simple gesture attempted to display their own fundamental respect for their lives, hardships and triumphs alike.

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