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Mu Xin draws on Chinese history to make 'Art'

By Aaron Lichtig

Chinese landscape painting has always been about tradition. From Fan Kuan to Guo Xi to Dong Yuan, Chinese landscape has progressed in small, intricate steps, always building on the works that came before.

Mu Xin's landscapes are influenced by this literati tradition, but are inspired and shaped by something else entirely. From 1966-76, in the heart of Mao's Cultural Revolution, he was imprisoned, and from 1977-79, he was placed under house arrest. Chinese officials also forced him to labor under harsh conditions in a Shanghai factory.

The Art of Mu Xin: Landscape Paintings and Prison Notes at the Yale University Art Gallery is a moving exhibition of the painted and written work created by Mu during his imprisonment. The show, guest-curated by Alexandra Munroe and Wu Hung, provides a remarkably complete, powerful memoir of the artist's mental and spiritual trials during his captivity.

The exhibition opens with a short description of Mu Xin's life and a summary of Chinese landscape painting, providing the stage for the profoundly moving pictures that follow. The first work, Bamboo and Plum, sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. A bamboo branch rises gracefully into the hazy sky framed by towering mountains. Unlike the vertical pictures of Ming master Huang Gongwang, however, Mu Xin's work is dim, sinister, and dense. The bamboo seems to be forcing its way through a haze, impeded in its upward journey. Many of the motifs and titles of the works are distinctly Chinese. Bamboo, mountains, streams, and travelers abound, as they have for thousands of years in Chinese art. They are, however, all much darker than any previous landscapes. The shadow covering Mu Xin's soul envelops all of his otherwise traditional paintings.

Some works, however, represent Mu's complete departure from the Chinese canon. Because he views art as an ecumenical practice, something that "resists distinctions as East and West, or the ancient versus the modern," he studied the Western painting tradition with Liu Haisu, something that was frowned upon by the authorities. His dialogue with the West can be seen in Spring Brilliance at Kuanji. The title is ironic; there is little brilliance in this work. The miasmic sky recalls the sfumato of Leonardo da Vinci, whom Mu calls "my earliest teacher." At Peace in Stone Cottage reduces landscape to its most simple forms—the rocks becoming hulking, abstract masses. Despite its modernism, the work recalls the rocky cliffs of Song painter Fan Kuan. To create this effect, Mu borrowed the surrealist technique of decalcomania, in which gouache is applied to the paper, another sheet is placed on top, and the sheet is removed to create a soft, blurry effect.

Mu Xin tried to create a "tower within a tower" for himself during his imprisonment. He built an ivory tower of ideas inside the tower (actually an abandoned factory) that held him. To do this, he not only had to paint, he had to write, creating what the exhibition calls his Prison Notes.

The notes are truly stirring, and the way in which they are displayed serves to amplify their power. In a small room at the back of the exhibition, Mu Xin's 66 double-sided musings, which went undiscovered by the authorities for the duration of his imprisonment, stand alone. Munroe and Hung place the pages in individual black frames, which are placed into five large plastic mounting cases in the center of the room. As the viewer stares at the tiny, cramped characters, light cascades down, filtered by white cloths that hang inconspicuously overhead. This creates an atmosphere in which reflection and contemplation cannot be avoided. There is only one painting in the room, a small portrait of Mu Xin painted by his friend, the artist Liu Dan. Mu's head, delicately sculpted in thin red pencil, faces to the right, gazing upon the works he secreted away. His presence in the room is palpable.

The exhibition is also being used as a valuable teaching tool. There is a lecture and film series on the artistic and intellectual climate in Cultural Revolution China that is running concurrently with the exhibition. The next event is a lecture by the artist Liu Dan on Wed., Nov. 14, and on Thurs., Dec. 6, Professor Jonathan Spence will lecture on the political climate in China while Mu Xin was imprisoned. These events will serve to make the work even more powerful.

Mu Xin wrote that a great painter, "besides being fully capable of using accepted principles, initiates new principles." In his landscapes, he proves that he can do just this.

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