Late autumn (persimmon) and couplet in running script

New Acquisitions: 2017

Shi Lu (1919–1982) was born in Renshou County, Sichuan Province. Inspired with revolutionary fervor, in 1939 he joined communist forces at Yan’an, their wartime headquarters in northern Shaanxi Province. Based in Yan’an for most of the 1940s, he contributed woodcuts, cartoons, posters, New Year’s pictures, and other forms of visual propaganda to advance the war effort and the communist cause. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Shi adopted the style of socialist realism then being introduced from the Soviet Union and became one of the leading official painters of the 1950s.

During the lead-up to the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), his work began to receive open criticism, and in 1965 he was institutionalized with a diagnosis of alcoholism and schizophrenia. Red Guards targeted him the following year, invading his hospital and publicly denouncing his art. For more than four years, Shi suffered deprivation and harsh treatment, both physical and psychological. By the time of his release in 1970, his health had been compromised irrevocably.

In the early 1970s, however, Shi was able to turn back to his work. He reinvented himself as an artist, simplifying his compositions in the manner of classical Chinese masters. He also added floral and botanical subjects to his repertoire and developed a unique style of energetic brushwork, where he pushed the brush like a carver’s tool.

These two works exemplify Shi’s creative explosion during the early 1970s. Combining vigorous strokes, dark ink, and bold color, the small rendering of a late autumn persimmon is the first Shi Lu painting to enter the museum collection. It utilizes the spare, angular composition typical of this period in his development, creating a striking graphic presence that matches the calligraphy above.

The two calligraphy works are written in the distinctive, visually powerful style of large running script that Shi favored at the time. He attacked the paper with savage intensity, stabbing it with abrupt, almost brutal strokes: jerky, but not hectic; rough, but not uncontrolled. Some commentators attribute this approach to the deep physical pain and psychological trauma of Shi’s incarceration.

By 1978, Shi’s physical condition had further deteriorated, and party authorities moved him to the capital. The next year, he was politically rehabilitated, and his work was recognized again through a major public exhibition and accompanying catalogue. Shi died in Beijing from stomach cancer in 1982, at the age of sixty-three.

Shi Lu (1919–1982)
China, Modern period, 1970s
Two album leaves mounted as hanging scroll; ink and color on paper, and ink on paper
Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth
Freer Gallery of Art F2017.2