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A Chinese Artist in Delhi: Shi Lu and the Art of Diplomacy

In the 1950s, the People's Republic of China (PRC) relied on artist Shi Lu to represent the country abroad. Shi Lu's 1955 trip to India to oversee the design of the Chinese Pavilion at the Indian Industries Fair and his 1956 trip to Egypt for the Afro-Asian Art Conference offer a lens for understanding the PRC's outreach and artistic diplomacy in the Cold War era. This essay discusses Shi Lu's political forays, an often overlooked component of modern Chinese art history and, by extension, global postwar modernism.

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Yang Wang

Yang Wang is assistant professor of art history at the University of Colorado Denver. Her ongoing book project, Provincializing National Art in Maoist China: The Chang’an... Read more »
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A Chinese Artist in Delhi: Shi Lu and the Art of Diplomacy

In the 1950s, the People's Republic of China (PRC) relied on artist Shi Lu to represent the country abroad. Shi Lu's 1955 trip to India to oversee the design of the Chinese Pavilion at the Indian Industries Fair and his 1956 trip to Egypt for the Afro-Asian Art Conference offer a lens for understanding the PRC's outreach and artistic diplomacy in the Cold War era. This essay discusses Shi Lu's political forays, an often overlooked component of modern Chinese art history and, by extension, global postwar modernism.

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In the 1950s, the People's Republic of China (PRC) relied on artist Shi Lu to represent the country abroad. Shi Lu's 1955 trip to India to oversee the design of the Chinese Pavilion at the Indian Industries Fair and his 1956 trip to Egypt for the Afro-Asian Art Conference offer a lens for understanding the PRC's outreach and artistic diplomacy in the Cold War era. This essay discusses Shi Lu's political forays, an often overlooked component of modern Chinese art history and, by extension, global postwar modernism.

The Chinese Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale offers an academic narrative that connects art history, contemporary art, and traditional craft through diagrams and flowcharts. This presentation reveals that China continues to engage with its past as subject matter for the present. The curator is the pioneer experimental artist Qiu Zhijie, best known for his 1995 Tattoo 2, a photograph of the artist with the character bu (“no”), which, painted across his torso, extends to the wall behind him—a trompe l’oeil with political overtones. The contrast between the experimental boldness of Tattoo 2 and the pedantic arrangement of his Venice exhibition is stark, and points to the duality of the artist’s role as both political agitator at home and state emissary abroad.

The dual role of the artist as autonomous creator and agent of the state finds precedent in the previous century. In the early People’s Republic of China (1949– ), the Chinese state tapped another artist to represent itself abroad. The story of Shi Lu (1919–1982) and his political forays represent an under-recognized component of modern Chinese art history and, by extension, global postwar modernism.

Against the backdrop of the Non-Aligned Movement in the mid-1950s, Maoist China tried to position itself at the center of a global “Third World” alliance and enlisted members of the Chinese art world to forge diplomatic alliances. One such enlistee was the rising star Shi Lu, hailing from the city Xi’an, who would eventually paint one of the most iconic images of Mao Zedong: Fighting in Northern Shaanxi (1959). Before he would do so, the impressionable young artist participated in two trips abroad that would shape the trajectory of his career.

Capturing global headlines in 1954, China and India signed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, an agreement that temporarily halted border tensions between the two countries. As heads of states conducted diplomacy in the limelight, artists of the Maoist period conducted a parallel program of cultural-exchange activities to reiterate the national agenda. In the year after the ratification of the Five Principles, China and India engaged in an active cultural exchange in which visual and performing artists traveled between the two countries as facilitators of friendship and goodwill. Shi Lu’s youth and natural charisma made him an ideal candidate to represent China on two such trips.

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China Pavilion (exterior), Indian Industries Fair, New Delhi, India. October 29, 1955–January 1, 1956. Photo: USIA, Courtesy Masey Archives

In 1955, he traveled to Delhi, India, to oversee the design of the Chinese Pavilion at the Indian Industries Fair.1 Large-scale international expositions, to which China was a relative newcomer, served as the arena for the world’s major and emerging powers to jostle for position and form alliances.2 This particular fair attracted the participation of the Soviet Union and the United States in addition to China.3 Rising Cold War tensions between the Capitalist West and the Communist Bloc were acutely seen and felt through national pavilions. To court non-aligned nations such as India, Capitalist and Communist nations alike devised propaganda programs to portray positive images of themselves.

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China Pavilion (entrance), Indian Industries Fair, New Delhi, India, October 29, 1955–January 1, 1956. Photo: USIA, Courtesy Masey Archives

As the USSR and the United States showcased their industrial achievements in manufacturing and atomic energy, respectively, China vied for a position among the powers by adopting an alternative approach: the exhibition of its traditional culture, including ink painting, ceramics, textiles, and handicrafts.4 China’s focus on its premodern achievements highlighted its strengths rather than exposing its inferior industrial capabilities, which matched its domestic shift toward revitalizing traditional Chinese culture. Although it remains unclear if Shi Lu designed the Chinese Pavilion or implemented the construction of someone else’s designs, his eventual reflections on the importance of national heritage and traditional art forms such as ink painting seemed to have been articulated through the distinctive Chinese design of the pavilion.

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U.S. Pavilion (exterior), Indian Industries Fair, New Delhi, India, October 29, 1955–January 1, 1956. Photo: USIA, Courtesy Masey Archives

According to Jack Masey, former United States Information Agency officer and the designer of the US Pavilion at the same fair, the Chinese Pavilion was notable for its traditional palace-style building and an enormous seated statue of Mao Zedong at the entrance. Although the true extent of Shi Lu’s contributions to the 1955 fair remains unknown, it appears that he understood his role to promote China at the fair and performed it well.

After the conclusion of the event, Shi Lu continued on to his second mission of the trip—sketching the people and scenery of India. A selection of finished paintings based on his sketches were published as a set of postcards titled Quick Sketches from India, Painted by Shi Lu.5 These images of local scenery focused on ordinary people in rural environments, and exhibited the orientalizing gaze of the Chinese artist, who featured the subject’s most prominent ethnographic features and the bucolic quaintness of the landscape. Despite their appeal to Chinese viewers, the paintings are surprisingly absent of revolutionary content. Shi Lu’s realistic renderings of mundane life defied the expectations of robust, heroic figures mandated by Socialist Realism, a style typically associated with Maoist China, but which was actually inconsistent with the abstract fluidity of traditional ink arts.

A year later, the Chinese government dispatched Shi Lu and his colleague Zhao Wangyun (1906–1977) to Cairo, Egypt, to attend the Afro-Asian Art Conference.6 Taking place one year after the historic Bandung Conference and just three months after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser formally recognized Communist China, the artists’ visit to Egypt resulted from the political alliance between the two countries.7

Harnessing the plein air skills they had developed at home, the artists tried to sketch and paint the local scenery as much as they could during their three-month trip.8 The resulting paintings were exhibited in Beijing and published in a high quality, large-format catalogue.

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Prime minister of Congo Patrice Lumumba under arrest, December 2, 1960. Source: Associated Press

While Zhao Wangyun largely returned to his affairs after the trip, Shi Lu became an “expert” on Arab and African affairs as China expressed support for “anti-imperial” revolutions that swept across Africa in the 1950s and ’60s. In addition to his artistic activities, Shi Lu also wrote about African politics and held administrative roles in Sino-African friendship associations. In response to the 1960 execution of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of Congo, Shi Lu published an impassionate denouncement of the incident in the People’s Daily.9 The artist’s unexpected foray into the world of international politics raises questions about his qualifications for such a task and, more importantly, about the intersection of art and international affairs in Maoist China. Shi Lu’s life would eventually take a tragic turn during the Cultural Revolution, a topic beyond the scope of this essay, but unlike many artists of the Maoist period who tepidly engaged in politics out of pressure, Shi Lu was an enthusiastic participant. The totality of his activities suggests that the artist viewed art as a necessity for preserving the Chinese civilization, which in the twentieth century also meant a recognition of art’s role in nation-building and diplomacy. His deft navigation of the domestic art sphere, an integral part of the Chinese sociopolitical infrastructure, adds another historical strand to the global postwar legacy.

1.

In addition to Chinese biographical sources on Shi Lu, a publication of the Indian government also mentions Shi Lu’s trip as an example of bilateral cultural exchange. Encyclopedia of India-China Cultural Contacts (New Delhi: MaXposure Media Group, 2014), 688.

2.

The employment of culture as Cold War propaganda is discussed in Walter Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).

3.

Although Chinese sources never mentioned the Indian event by name, Shi Lu’s travel dates (July 1955 to spring 1956) and descriptions of his involvement match the Indian Industries Fair, held in New Delhi from October 29, 1955, to January 1, 1956. The event is discussed in Jack Masey and Conway Lloyd Morgan, Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, 2008).

4.

“Guohua dashi Shi Lu de yishu lichen chuanqi,” Shoucang jie, July 21, 2011, http://collection.sina.com.cn/cqyw/20110721/175133001.shtml.

5.

Since as early as the 1920s, postcards featuring art have been sold as collectible sets. A typical buyer of Shi Lu’s postcards would have kept the entire set to enjoy it in the same way one would a traditional Chinese ink-painting album (ce).

6.

Shi Lu teji. Han Mo 47 (Hong Kong: Hanmoxuan chuban youxian gongsi, 1993), E12–13.

7.

Osgood Caruthers, “Nasser Will Visit Communist China; Plans bid to Chou,” New York Times, May 25, 1956, 1.

8.

Zhang Yi, Shi Lu zhuan (Xi’an: Shaanxi renmin meishu chubanshe, 2001), 207.

9.

Shi Lu, “Today’s Dalasi Will Not Escape People’s Verdict,” People’s Daily, February 23, 1961.

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