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Dungeon Master

The imprisoned Chinese painter and writer Mu Xin blended East and West in his misty landscapes—and saved himself in the process.

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Landscape Escapism: Autumn Color at Jinling (1977-78).  

A Chinese intellectual gifted at both writing and painting, Mu Xin, who is now in his mid-seventies, ran afoul of Maoist ideologues at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. They destroyed his life’s work, including numerous manuscripts and paintings, and he spent the next decade incarcerated—first in solitary confinement and then under house arrest. In 1971 and ’72, imprisoned in an old air-raid shelter in Shanghai, he squirreled away paper supplied for forced confessions and wrote The Prison Notes. (At great personal risk, he secreted its pages in his clothes). Toward the end of the decade, under house arrest and sentenced to hard labor, he covertly created a series of penumbral landscapes: “I was by day a slave,” he said of this period of landscape painting, “and by night a prince.”

Mu Xin’s work is a remarkable response to political terror—remarkable, in part, for its subtle, unexpected character. In the Asia Society’s Landscape of Memory: The Art of Mu Xin, co-organized by the Yale University Art Gallery and the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, there is no air of outrage, martyrdom, or chest-thumping moral superiority. Instead, Mu Xin offers a kind of flickering luminosity that, without false optimism or blind sentimentality, sustained an imprisoned spirit. The 66 manuscript pages of The Prison Notes, presented in standing frames, open the exhibition. Composed while Mu Xin was in solitary, they represent a disciplined act of memory and meditation—an intense private dialogue inspired mainly by figures from the Western tradition, among them Wagner, Rousseau, and Dostoyevsky. In his cell, for example, he tried to define happiness: “OK, we might ask: What does ‘happiness’ look like? Answer: It looks like a painting by Cézanne. Happiness is painted one brush stroke after another. Cézanne himself, his wife, they were not happy.”

“The flicker in Mu Xin’s darkened world is neither despairing nor hopeful; it is, rather, a form of solace.”

Although Mu Xin lit his dark cell with such thoughts, the actual pages of The Prison Notes also have a strongly visceral quality. Each sheet teems with writing; no emptiness is left on the page. The writer is not just saved by the Word; he dispels the void by his physical mark. Mu Xin’s landscapes display the same unusual balance between the visceral and the metaphysical. Their softly atmospheric quality reflects both the art of Leonardo and traditional Chinese painting, but they also look worn, ancient, and stony—almost geologic in feeling. It’s not certain how Mu Xin made them, but he probably employed a surrealist technique: He would create some indistinct shapes by chance, then draw out the “landscape” concealed there. Within the dark flux of form—during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution—he discerned the lineaments of art, history, and civilization.

Critics are intrigued by the way Mu Xin synthesizes Western and Chinese painting, but the word synthesis does not capture the effect of his art. It sounds too abstract, too mechanical. Mu Xin is a solitary, an aesthete who resembles those Chinese artists of long ago who, exiled from the turbulence of their own times, studied earlier art and dreamed of a better past. Like those figures, Mu Xin cultivates the whispering power of reverie. Familiar with both Asian and Western ways—he’s also a man of our day—he creates an art of communion, one that brings together the masters of each tradition and unites past and present. The flicker in Mu Xin’s darkened world is neither despairing nor hopeful. It is, rather, a form of solace. Cézanne himself may not be happy, but he could paint happiness one brush stroke after another; an artist may be forced to perform hard labor by day but may become a prince by night. Mu Xin himself refers to his landscapes and The Prison Notes as a “Tower within a Tower”—the ivory tower that saved him from the prison tower of the totalitarian mind. His sensibility is rare: We do not often, today, come upon a saving art.


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