A Chinese art mystery

As I mentioned a few posts back, before Easter our masters students put together an exhibition of objects loaned by the University’s Department of Geology and Leicester Arts and Museum Service. One painting, on first sight seemingly straight-forward turned out to be quite an enigma.

Called ‘A Mountain Boy’, it is recorded as being by an artist called Shi Peng. You can see a reproduction of it here, on the BBC’s Your Paintings website. It is an example of a genre known as ‘Rural’ or ‘New Realism’, perhaps most closely associated with Luo Zhongli and the ‘Sichuan School’ of artists working between the late 1970s and 1980s. Many of these artists, Luo among them, were of an age to have been ‘sent down’ to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Rural Realism, in its preoccupation with presenting humanistic portraits of (typically) Chinese minorities in pastoral landscapes was a real reaction against the socialist  and revolutionary realism that had dominated politically sanctioned art genres during the final decades of Mao’s leadership and these painters’ art school training. They sought to represent the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the rural population (Leung and Siu 1998). Luo’s famous Father (1980) is affecting in its hyper-realism, but other painters following in his stead approached their subjects no less powerfully but more subjectively, as Sullivan (1996: 237) puts it, in works reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s oeuvre (see artists Hu Duoling, Chen Danqing, and  Ai Xuan). But, by the time the controversial China Avant-Garde exhibition was held at the National Gallery, Beijing in 1989, the genre was largely a spent force. And of course, 1989 is a significant date in recent Chinese history…which brings me back to A Mountain Boy.

The painting was allocated to a group of MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies students, as it has been in previous years. However, this time the group decided to find out a little more about the artist. The Chinese-speaking students did some research. They found an artist called Shi Peng, and contacted him. Unfortunately he claimed that the work was not his own. Back to the drawing board. I checked my dictionary of Chinese artists – he wasn’t mentioned. Efforts to track down the apparently elusive Shi Peng, were complicated by the fact that he had chosen to render his signature on the painting in roman letters – not Chinese characters. Now, everyone who has ever attempted to learn Mandarin, quickly realises that apparently identical characters, while when spoken sound different (because of tonal pronunciation) and have different meanings, are romanised not dissimilarly. So, two individuals could, in pinyin (the PRC’s official system of transliteration) be called ‘Shi Peng’, but their names, and the meaning of their names would be quite different. Clear as mud, I know, but it’s crucial here to get a handle on how difficult this makes the process of tracking an individual down without having their name in characters.

Meanwhile, I had noticed a couple of things about the painting’s inscription. Under ‘Shi Peng’ was written ‘6.1989’. It seemed reasonable to assume this was the date it was painted – June 1989. That significant date again. Some time spent on Google revealed that there is a place in Sichuan province (a mountainous region) called ‘Shipeng’. Could the boy be wearing the traditional clothing of the ‘Yi’ people? Perhaps the inscription meant that it had been painted in Shipeng in June 1989 and didn’t refer to the name of the artist at all!

I got on to New Walk Museum and Art Gallery. What information did the museum have about the painting? Well, as it turned out, not a lot. But what they had suggested an intriguing twist. The record on the museum’s database stated the following:

This painting was a gift of the artist, Mr Shi Peng (b.1954), Assistant Professor, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute which styles itself as ‘A famous academy in China and a pearl on the upper reaches of the Yantze River’.

So, ‘Shi Peng’ was the artist. He was of the right age to be a contemporary (perhaps a little younger) of the Rural Realists. He also taught at Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts – so, its reasonable to conclude that he would follow the ‘Sichuan School’. I passed this information onto the students, and they contacted the Institute. No record of a ‘Shi Peng’ having ever taught there. Curiouser and curiouser!

And that’s as far as we’ve got so far. It is tempting to wonder if a Sichuanese artist, painting a boy in a mountainous landscape during pro-democracy protests, and their brutal crackdown, who ended up in Leicester – accompanied by the painting – a year later, was a dissident artist sent into exile and struck from official record. But, again, I can’t find any mention of a ‘Shi Peng’ fitting this bill. Had the museum incorrectly noted down the name of the painter/donor, assuming it was ‘Shi Peng’? Or was the painter/donor pretending to be a Mr Shi Peng, or masquerading as a lecturer at Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, for that matter!

The very well-connected Dr Katie Hill has kindly asked her contacts to see if they have any information about the mysterious Shi Peng and his painting, but to no avail so far. Perhaps somebody out there in cyber-space reading this post, can shed some light on the matter? If you can, please do get in touch. Myself, the students and New Walk Museum would be delighted to hear from you!

Leung, I.S. and Sui, M.S. K. (1989) ‘Chronologies’. New Chinese Art: Inside Outhttp://sites.asiasociety.org/arts/insideout/chronologies.html (accessed 29/04/2013)


Sullivan, M. (1996) Art and Artists of Twentieth Century China. Berkeley and LA: University of California Press.

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