Scribbles From the Underground

The Asian Wall Street Journal

8 February 2002

During the dark years of China’s Cultural Revolution, the writer-artist Mu Xin was imprisoned in an abandoned air-raid shelter in Shanghai. His cell was dank with filthy water and lit only by a dim kerosene lamp. Yet in that environment of despair, Mu Xin’s imagination transformed his surroundings into a salon where civilization’s greatest thinkers and artists were his visitors and companions. He engaged in inspired dialogues with Tolstoy, Cezanne, Beethoven and many others, undaunted by conditions made to break the human will. “I was rejected by the absurd world at the time. So I built a more reasonable but magical world in which I sincerely lived,” he once told an interviewer.

“The Prison Notes” were composed on paper intended for writing self-criticisms, which Mu Xin purloined and hid within his clothes. Remarkably, the writings survived. Sixty-six sheets, now yellowed by time and wear, are covered with some 650,000 characters so tiny and precise they appear to be stitched into the paper. At the Yale University Art Gallery, the writings are displayed suspended in a plexiglass wall where they can be seen recto and verso. Although not all legible, the visual impact of “The Prison Notes” resonates with a nearly obsessive rhythm; they embody the mind’s perseverance under the most trying of circumstances.

An excerpt from “The Prison Notes” gives insight into Mu Xin’s mind while imprisoned from 1971-72: “When catastrophe befalls and affects you . . . you are reduced to a ridiculous state of existence . . . Consequently you are forced into the underground, which is to say, you have to fight even if you don’t want to (as you have to live, to avoid death).”

“The Prison Notes” and 33 of Mu Xin’s landscape paintings make up an exhibit that this winter will travel from the Yale University Art Gallery to the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago and then to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. With this first comprehensive display of Mu Xin’s work, collectors and curators are hoping to shine a spotlight on what they believe is a major, though obscure, figure in modern Chinese painting.

The paintings in the series are only 13 by 17 inches, giving them an intimate, private feel. Many of the scenes depict elements found in traditional Chinese landscapes: mountains, gorges, waterfalls. Mu Xin created the series clandestinely while under house arrest from 1976-79. Because his supplies were limited, he employed innovative techniques. Without proper brushes, Mu Xin experimented with methods of frottage, where paint is worked by rubbing between surfaces.

Decalcomania, a technique popularized in the 1930s by the Surrealists, was also used. Here, paper is layered atop one another then peeled away to reveal organic shapes that are defined by brush. The works are largely monochromatic; it is said that Mu Xin was wary of neighbors spotting any paint color that washed into the gutter.

“Half Thousand Li of the Ruo River” is an aerial view of a forest lining a dark swath of water. The strong contrast between the velvety blackness of the river and the light outlines of trees creates a very photographic feel. Under close scrutiny, the forest and all the minutiae of its flora are revealed to be the sticky patterns of blotted paint, masterfully manipulated to form detail so exquisite one can practically count individual branches.

Many titles evoke the ancient Wei and Jin dynasties (A.D. 220-419), an era of great artistic and intellectual flourish. “Ancient Road at Shanyin” refers to the main road used by great luminaries between the imperial capitals. “Reminisces of Wangchuan” refers to the retirement home of Tang dynasty poet-artist Wang Wei, who is thought of as the father of Chinese landscape.

Despite the lofty allusions to past greatness, Mu Xin’s paintings are not tributes to the splendor of a golden age. Rather, he portrays landscapes with a ravaged, worn quality. “Dawn Mood at Bohai” depicts a barren empty beach, striated lines emphasizing its emptiness, which looks like a foreboding wasteland. This heavy solitude, of image suffused with mood, is not commonly found in traditional Chinese painting but more reminiscent of the somber ponderings of European painters such as the German Romanticists. Mu Xin cites Leonardo da Vinci as his early teacher.

Born in 1927, Mu Xin was the only child of a wealthy family in Zhejiang province, not far from Hangzhou and Shanghai, two centers for art and cosmopolitan ideas. Private tutors taught him the great classics of Chinese art, literature and history. He had access to the library of Mao Dun — an intellectual of the May 4th movement and a distant relative — and became widely read in Western literature and art, eventually enrolling in the prestigious Shanghai Fine Arts Institute to study Western painting. After a year, he left to study with the artist Lin Fengmian and began exploring Chinese modernism.

In the years from 1949-1979 Mu Xin’s family was dispersed, imprisoned or killed. He took on low-level posts in Shanghai and Hangzhou craft collectives and gained some reputation as an exhibition designer. But when the Cultural Revolution began, he was sent to hard labor and endured the first of his prison terms in 1971. Twenty manuscripts and hundreds of his paintings were destroyed.

In 1982 Mu Xin immigrated to America. He lives alone in New York City and speaks no English but works continuously. A prolific writer, Mu Xin has published 12 volumes of essays, fiction and poetry and has gained a following in Taiwan and among overseas Chinese audiences. His literary work is to be published in mainland China for the first time in 2003.

Mu Xin knew to be caught writing or painting while imprisoned risked death. But the alternative, to let the mind wither beneath the weight of hopelessness, seemed worse. “Tower Within a Tower” is Mu Xin’s wonderful title for the works in the exhibit. It refers to the days when his spirit still flourished in an ivory tower of the mind while physically locked up in a prison tower. “By day I was a slave,” he says in an interview published in the exhibit’s gorgeous catalog. “By night I was a prince.” By drawing on his imagination, Mu Xin transported himself in time and space, freeing his soul from even the worst confines.

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