One could not have a thorough understanding of the significance of Luo Zhongli in modern Chinese art history without a fundamental knowledge of how Chinese paintings had developed from the 1950s to the 1970s. It was within that particular context that art had been developed into a tool of politics. At that time, artists were only allowed to sing the praises of heroes with propagandizing subject matters, ranging from struggles in guerilla warfare, to Mao organizing labour movements with oppressed peasants and miners, which led to the big strike in Anyuan that shook China in 1921. Peasants have been shaped in accordance with political correctness and uniformly portrayed as great heroes, who are not only "high, big, whole" beings but also radiators of the "bright", "Red", and "light".
It was not until the end of the 1970s when China was undergoing economic and social reforms that the society began to reflect on what the "truth" of art could be. Luo Zhongli and his contemporary artists were among those who managed to break free from political indoctrination. "Scar Art", which emerged after the Cultural Revolution, was an art form which aimed to reflect the reality of Chinese society by critically revealing the dark side of the revolution and the real peasants' lives. Luo's "social realist" works on peasants' lives bear the trademark of the times, marking how the Chinese people in the 1980s, awakening from their passive roles and the absence of social awareness, to becoming self-conscious of their social responsibilities, to explore further in depth social truths, and to even expose the "Red Lie" inculcated in them for a decade.
Luo's childhood was spent in the prosperous Chongqing Municipality of Sichuan Province, making his lifelong entanglement with the theme of peasantry all the more striking. During the Cultural Revolution, like so many city youths, Luo was sent to the countryside to learn from hard labor hydro-electric factory in the Daba Mountain area, giving him the rural experience that would influence him throughout his career on his art. He felt that the peasants were constantly under exploitation and felt compelled to speak for them, to make their burdens heard and understood. It was such a profound personal experience that his genuine concern for humanity lends an emotional sweep to his art. Impressed by the works of Jean-Francois Millet, Luo learned to portray his rural subject matters with more sophisticated skills and techniques in the style of Western Realist rural paintings. His detailed Realism enables him to thoroughly capture the bitter and impoverished lives of the peasants in rural China, and the sense of heaviness is noticeable in Luo's iconic Father which led him to fame in the 80's. The artistic career of Luo can be roughly divided into three stages. The first stage commenced at the birth of Father. Since then, the plight of peasants has been recorded by his skillful hand and his superb photo-realistic painting techniques. Tibetan Chief (Lot 1398) and the Tibetan Series (Lot 1397) are works from this period. In much the same way as Father, these two paintings have a subversive undertone against the trend of romanticized Chinese rural "realist" paintings of the previous era. The dark tone of their skin, its rough and dry texture, as well as the intricate wrinkles on their faces are acutely portrayed by his delicate, almost invisible brushstrokes. The bodies bear the traces of ages and hardship, are often in stark contrast with eyes that sparkle like stars in the night sky. The peasants in Luo's portrayal, despite their crudeness and simplicity, exude impressive gumption and perseverance. Their neat adornment was a tribute to the upright and honest peasants who are held in the artist's high regard.
Reflection of new truths is undoubtedly the starting point of rural realism in the 80's and "Scar Art" in the Chinese context. However, Luo did not wish to confine his themes to revealing the hardship and poverty of the peasants' physical life, but he also hoped to engage the audience in their spiritual life as well, where they were not deprived of warmth, wisdom, and rustic charm. After graduating from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Luo's works began to take a more casual, light-hearted form, with moderate variation in his dominant themes. The depiction of village life is infused with genuine feelings but without the heaviness of his earlier works. At this creative stage, Luo's vision shifted from individuals and their particular circumstances to a more philosophical look at human life and nature. His portraits were replaced with commonplace scenarios, showing his love for country life and the irreplaceable value of simple human interaction. The scenes in Spring Shower (Lot 1374), Passing the Torch (Lot 1375), The Grindstone (Lot 1376) and Grandma's Love (Lot 1396) are sourced from nothing but ordinary life - family and romantic love, enjoying a break during a rainstorm, labour, lighting a flame at night, or a gentle touch. These scenes, brimming with warmth, humanity, and good humor, go straight to the audience's heart, and are meant to prevent some precious details of life from fading away over time.
Spring Shower captures a couple taking shelter in a cavern to stay away from the rain. Through a thick veil of rain, the man rolls up his trousers and removes his damp shirt to drain, exposing his strong, bare shoulders. He lays down the couple's luggage, taking a seat and rest. The woman, highlighted by her feminine curves, also has her trousers rolled up, is combing her long wet hair leisurely with her fingers. Luo displays a penchant for water in his paintings - whatever form it takes, from heavy rain or light showers to ponds and rivers. Water is the source of life that nourishes all things on earth. Peasants need water to irrigate their crops, and through water they stay in connection with the nature. The precious rainwater always reminds them of the unpredictable weather, so they can calmly wait for the rain to stop, as depicted by the painting where staggering heavy and dense brushstrokes fill up a moss-covered cavern. Compared with the stark colours prevalent in his first stage of career, Luo later opted for brighter colours. The combination of the bluish green background, the eye-catching red bag and the dash of orange on the man's shirt, add a delightful rhythm to the composition. The simple portraiture of the characters nonetheless conveys a natural feel of subtle sentimentality. Luo's affection for the apparent simplicity of peasant life then captures these scenes of the poetic tranquility of "moments in between moments".
The Grindstone illustrates a sturdy man with dark complexion standing next to the millstone, carefully examining the bending sickle. The sickle is a tool for harvesting crops while the millstone is used by peasants for the grinding. Luo deliberately included flocks of livestock in this painting. Free-range hens or pigs being fed, poultry and game, grains and vegetables, all become symbolic of the self-sufficient lives of the peasants. Luo's perspective is from a lowered vantage, allowing the man's robust physique to radiate the exuberant vitality of a life in labour.
Passing the Torch takes viewers to a wintry night, when a man and a woman clad in thick padded jackets, with a book in one hand and a torch in the other, are helping each other to light a fire, pulling together the ends of their torches. The bright glow of yellow in the middle becomes the focal point of the composition as the delicate tonal gradient creates the effect of firelight radiating outwards. The flame not only lights the whole scene but also warms the heart as a symbol of humanity.
Grandma's Love portrays a grandmother, with hair white and temples gray, having laid down her cane, sits down on a bench to help adjust her grandson's garments, possibly alleviating some discomfort. This painting depicts the intimate bond among family members in rural families. Family is the basic unit of a village. Traditionally, the family is the anchor of society, the essential social institution from which the hierarchy of human relationships stems. The societal value of the old taking care of the young is crystallized in the affectionate hand of the grandmother tending to her grandson. The dog coiled in the corner adds a playful twist to the painting.
The simple composition, the touch of life and the very essence of humanity encapsulated in Spring Shower, Passing the Torch, The Grindstone and Grandma's Love, have touched upon the culture and core values of rural life. Shuang-Xi Yin once commented, "Luo Zhongli's works in fact provide us with a reference to survival and the eternal value of interaction among humans. In this way, the life of the peasants living in Daba Mountain area, has gone beyond the borders of regional landscape to form a reflection of national spirit and social values, norms and concepts when modernization is underway." Luo Zhongli has always grounded his works in rural subject matters. The fun and pleasant side of rural life highlighted in his art has never failed to touch a heartstring with its delightful warmth.