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A Painter's Story

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There's a huge amount of interest in the art world, these days, in what's happening on the art scene in post-Cultural Revolution China. The phenomenal exhibition of the work of Shanghai-trained Cai Guo-Qiang, currently installed at the Simon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, offers but one example of the new wave of Chinese artists recently "discovered" by the West. Western dealers and collectors, so I've heard, are swarming through the massive buildings that house galleries and studios in cities like Beijing, and not only those artists but also the newly wealthy Chinese plutocrats are a becoming significant presence in the still-overheated world art markets.

All the more interesting, then, to take a leisurely trip back through time to catch a glimpse of a very different "art world" -- both in China and the West -- a century ago. The Painter From Shanghai, newly published novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein, offers just this opportunity, since the academies of Shanghai and Paris provide the background and local color for her story. From the point of view of artists' expectations and the role of the art market, as well as that of public attitudes and tastes, that world seems strikingly innocent by comparison with our own.

Not so innocent, however, were the early years of the protagonist whose story Epstein tells. This fictional account is based on the real-life experiences of Pan Yuliang, a woman who was to become, in exile from her homeland, one of China's best-known and best-loved painters of the early twentieth century. Orphaned as a child and sold into prostitution at the age of thirteen by the opium-addled uncle entrusted with her care, this remarkable, strong-minded and eventually independent woman (a stubborn, footloose "boar" in the Chinese calendar) survived the beatings, the abuse, the abject humiliation of life in a provincial town brothel for long enough to be rescued by the gentle, respectful, progressively-minded man whom she would eventually marry as his second wife, or concubine.

In Epstein's sensitive and persuasive telling, it was the common love and knowledge of classical Chinese poetry that formed the initial bond between these two, and served as the glue that kept them together over many difficult years. A "Selected Bibliography" at the end of the book -- unusual for a novel -- makes it clear that the author read widely in preparation for her understanding of early twentieth century China, its history, culture and social mores, as well as the sights, sounds and smells of a city so far removed from our own experience. Still, one of the most remarkable things about this book is Epstein's imaginative ability to make it all come alive through the precision of detail and evocative image. She manages to convey a sense of the ambience of the period that is at once poetic and steeped in realism.

If the first half of Epstein's novel immerses us in the world of provincial and then, in Shanghai, cosmopolitan China, the second takes us to Europe where Pan Yuliang experiences new hardships as an impoverished art student struggling to make ends meet and to refine her own skills and vision as an artist. The twin threads of the story are, on the one hand, personal, intimate, aesthetic and, on the other, social, global and political, with rival factions of Communism and proto-fascism clashing, at times violently, in the streets of both China and the West, and Japan's brutal war on China leaving a lasting scar on the country's subsequent history. Modernity is in its birth throes, too, throughout the world, and there are cultural taboos with which Pan Yuliang must struggle, painfully, in order for her vision as an artist to achieve maturity. Known chiefly for her highly lyrical and overtly sensual nude self-portraits, she courted the outraged disapproval of an easily-offended, tradition-bound public -- at times at risk of life and limb.

Epstein weaves her dual threads together skillfully, and "The Painter from Shanghai" is an enjoyable, engrossing read. Having spent a good deal of time with artists and writers over the years, I generally get nervous when I encounter a fictional version of one or the other -- particularly of artists. There's a tendency amongst writers to romanticize the artist, and to produce characters that in no way resemble those I have come to know or am likely ever to meet; and despite the hardships she so effectively describes, Epstein does leave something of a rosy aura around both her characters and the cultural and political world in which they live. Her detail can be so exotic, so subtle, so "Chinese" in flavor that even a life of slavery and physical abuse in a brothel risks seeming charmingly oriental and seductive rather than truly vile.

Still, without that glow the book would perhaps not be the pleasure it is to read. Those interested can readily find examples of the real Pan Yuliang's work online. Blending her own native Chinese traditions with an obvious love of Matisse and the lessons of pre-Modernist masters like Cezanne, her pictures exude that unabashedly sensuous energy that seems entirely in keeping with the Pan Yuliang portrayed by Epstein in her novel. The artist's story is a remarkable and touchingly human one, extolling the triumph of the imagination over any and all obstacles life chooses to thrust in our path. While she is never fully allowed to escape the pain and isolation incurred on her journey from desperate childhood into eventual exile as an artist and teacher, she has learned to live with them, by the end of Epstein's story, with a true measure of dignity and inner peace. In this regard, the pursuit of material "success" that colors the vision of so many artists in today's market-driven art world seems shallow and paltry by comparison.