07/18/2014 12:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Portrait of the Watercolorist as a Young Man


The provenance of the famed illustrator James McMullan's iconic poster for Lincoln Center's Anything Goes is to be found in the exhibit of watercolors from his recently published memoir Leaving China, currently on display at The John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. McMullan's father had been the child of missionaries (McMullan's grandparents had founded a orphanage in China). His paternal aunt was devout, but his father enjoyed earthly pleasures, among them playing Broadway musical tunes from shows like Anything Goes on the piano, a pleasure which is rendered in one of the panels of the exhibit. In another watercolor, McMullan envisions his emblematic childhood self looking through a window at a crucifix. The image in the distance is more crystal clear than the foreground of the painting and it pinpoints the brilliance of the intersection between art making and remembrance. The precision and clarity of the tiny crucifix correlates to the esthetic distance conferred on memory by time. In one of the exhibit's inscriptions McMullan describes the effect on his imagination of the art he saw as a child thusly:

"I believe that my first conscious idea of 'art' came from looking at scenes depicted in the Chinese scrolls hanging on our living room walls. I was fascinated that the lines in the paintings were so flat and obviously 'just lines,' but they conjured up three dimensional trees, mountains and people. It gave me a taste of the power of calligraphy in drawing."

So while the historical facts make McMullan's memoir seem like an illustrated watercolor version of J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun. Leaving China records the genesis of a sensibility; it's an ars poetica. McMullan's memoir might be subtitled A Portrait of the Watercolorist As a Young Man.

This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture