On Painting Pan Yuliang
(Or: On Not Writing What You Know)
by Jennifer Cody Epstein
It’s safe to say that while I always knew I’d write a novel, I never dreamed I would write The Painter from Shanghai.
Growing up, reading obsessively from Woolf and Wolfe, H. James and James J., I’d always imagined patterning my own first book along the same lines. I saw it—quite modestly—as another seminal, semi-biographical coming-of-age story; something that would draw from my own vivid if somewhat mundane experiences as a glum teen in Wellesley, MA, magically morphing them into a luminous work of great wisdom and beauty. If anyone had told me that my debut work would draw from not my own life, but one infinitely more distant; one not only largely undocumented (at least, not in words) but also set in a land across the globe, a half-century before my birth, amid struggles and turmoils and revolutions of art and culture and government that would take me years of scholarship to even start to understand—well, I would have said one thing: “You’re crazy.”
In fact, this is precisely what I did say when the idea of writing about Pan Yuliang was first suggested to me, at the Guggeheim Museum, nearly ten years ago.
My husband Michael and I were viewing a show of modern Chinese art. When I saw my first Pan Yuliang painting it intrigued me: lush and Cezanne-esque, it pictured (like, I’d learn, so many of Pan Yuliang’s pictures) the artist as a young woman, sad and wistful against her Parisian windowscene. When I read the accompanying biography (prostitute-turned-concubine-turned-pioneering-modern-painter; really?!) my jaw dropped.
“Look,” I exclaimed to Michael. “Look at this AMAZING woman.”
My husband—a filmmaker with a good eye for plot and image—took in Pan’s striking image, her stunning lifeline and my rapt, breathless expression. Then he turned to me.
"This,” he announced, “is your first novel."
“You’re crazy,” I told him.
And at the time, I really thought that he was. It was true that I had a Master’s in international relations; that I’d lived in Japan and China. But I knew nothing about Asian art, or even about art in general. And I’d only started seriously writing fiction—albeit mostly semi-autobiographical, longish short stories that had little of the authorial pull I’d hoped for (which, in retrospect, is not surprising; there’s only so much literary depth to be plumbed from a despondent upbringing in an upper-middle-class suburb).
And yet what had seemed a startling proposal slowly took root. In following months I sought out pieces of Pan’s life and work like the parts to some enormous puzzle—if one I could only dream of completing. In some ways, the more I learned the more daunted I became—who was I, who could barely manage to master her own, dull story on paper, to take on that of a wounded, talented, unimaginably brave Chinese painter? Plus, there was so little to go on—even in Chinese; there was, I learned, little concretely known of Pan. Her only legacy was her art; some 4000 odd paintings and sculptures that were—sadly for me—mostly locked away in storage, in China. Even the dates on her Paris gravestone are debated. How, I wondered, could I possibly weave a compelling, credible story from such sparse materials?
I found both my answer and inspiration, in part, in Pan Yuliang’s own work: the gorgeous and defiantly Western images (often nude, often herself nude) that had so shocked her countrymen in the last century. The images—whether lush pears or lithely curved female bodies—spoke to unrepentant fascination with beauty; with female strength; with sexuality; with the often-fuzzy lines that delineate culture, nationality, morality. Artistic voice. If her somber self-portraits (in only one I’ve seen is she actually, openly smiling) gave me a clue to her temperament and harsh past, her vibrant palette and fanciful blendings of post-Impressionism and guohua, of Eastern discipline and Western romance and perspective, gave me insight into her dreams, longings, her unique artistic eye—or at least, so I liked to think. At any rate, in many ways they were the strongest sources I had.
So in the end, I ended up working largely through those images; searching lines and hues and expressions for clues into the life that Pan Yuliang might have lived when she painted them. It was, as I imagined it, a life of beauty, pain and drama; of more than a hint of real darkness. Of a lush love of form and color. Oddly enough, though, as I pieced together this portrait I also—in the process—painted my own, after all. It wasn’t a Woolf-esque meditation on shattered homes and lost loves and painful lessons in the wake of adolescence. It was a larger story, equally important to me and immeasurably more colorful; a story of an artist finding her way. Creating her work out of unlikely and—initially—vastly alien materials. In Pan’s case, those materials were nude bodies and Western techniques and the boldly unrepentant tones of the Fauvists. In mine, they were foreign countries (China) and subjects (art; prostitution) and a shaky determination that—at very least—somehow—I would see this thing through to the last word.
And in the end, I suppose, we both succeeded. Despite a life that ended in poverty, illness and obscurity—and the virtual exclusion of women from the current Asian art boom—Pan Yuliang is now experiencing a renaissance in China. The museum in Anhui Province (to which she left all her work when she died) recently has restored many of her paintings, and has dozens of them proudly on display.
As for me—well, Painter may not be a breakout bestseller. And I’m still just a girl who grew up in a rich suburb. But my book is being greeted warmly by the press and most readers I hear from, which is gratifying. They find, as do I, inspiration and wonder in Pan’s story and her work. Though they do ask why I chose this topic, instead of something closer to home.
Hmmmm. How to tell that story….
Nude by Pan Yuliang (1963). Collection: Anhui Provincial Museum, Hefei, China.
Doodlings, she thinks of them. Her little worthless scribbles: tiny images of fruits, flowers, monkey faces and occasional dragon, topped with Qian Ma’s head. These are figures that almost of their own impetus bud and unfurl in the blank margins of Yuliang’s copybook these days. To her eye, the small pictures are as inexcusably inexpert as was that first grief-stricken sketch of Jinling. More than once, appalled at how her pencil has mauled a plum, she’s vowed to stop altogether. And yet the little pictures keep coming, in a process both addictive and mystifying. It’s the same need that drove her to stay up through the early morning hours at the Hall, coaxing peonies and fresh-faced peaches onto cloth with her needle. But there, she’s discovering, is something liberating about ink or lead. Unfettered by thread, she can bring the whims of her thoughts—whispering trees, wilting flowers—to life quickly, if often ineptly. And even when the images are inept the solution is refreshingly simple. She simply rips the page out and starts over.
As more and more of her study time is devoted to art she starts to worry as she hands Zanhua her “study” sheets: it seems impossible to her that he won’t reprimand her for putting so little effort into them. To her astonishmenet, though, he doesn’t even seem to notice that the characters she once spent hours on are now dashed off in half that time. He continues to praise her brushwork and the delicacy of her execution. At least, until one afternoon when he is at home working in his office.
Yuliang is lying on his bed upstairs with her writing things. Lulled into a dreamy daze by the rain-patter on the glass, she is thinking about the old French priest from their outing; about the deft assurance with which those meaty hands captured a flowers frail beauty. The same feeling she’d had then—a thrill, blended with longing—fills her, and almost without thinking about it she pages past the day’s vocabulary in her copybook. Tongue between her lips, she makes soft gray sweeps on the paper. She adds more detail a faint line there, a smudge here. A dark crease to show the dainty fold of a leaf. The flower’s flaws—its unevenness; the unnatural cast of attempted shading—needle her. And yet she keeps on trying.
On her fourth try she takes a different approach. Instead of drawing line by line, she tries to tap into that flashquick association between image and meaning that is the key to her growing literacy. Orchid, she thinks. Orchid. And without letting her mind go any further, she puts her lead tip once more to the paper’s surface. When she is done she shuts her eyes, then opens them again.
To her thrilled surprise, what she has drawn is just that: an orchid. It’s still a bit crooked, a little chunky in the stem and stamen. She’d do better if she had one right in front of her. And yet anyone—a schoolboy, a child not yet capable of reading the word, even, looking at this picture, would know it for what it was. Flushed with victory, she’s just turning a fresh page to try it again when Zanhua flings himself on the bed, almost on top of her. “Ah-ha! Caught you!” he cries nuzzling her neck. “You didn’t hear me come up?” He pulls her, copybook and all, into a rough embrace. “The old sons-of-turtles are crazy,” he shouts. “There’s no way in hell we’re going to be able to check all small craft in the Harbor before they reach the docks!”
“No way, certainly,” she says, into the lime-sweet pomade of his hair, “if you don’t ever leave the house.”
He pulls back slightly. “Ah. You do want me out.”
She laughs. “Of course I don’t.” Snaking her arm out from under his weight, she tries discreetly to drop the book over the bed’s edge. But he catches her hand back.
“Not so quickly,” he says. “Let’s take a look at your work, little scholar.” And, still pinning her beneath him, he parts the book’s pages. She feels her face flush as he looks at her, then back. “Did you do this?”
Zanhua rolls off of her. Bending over the book, he begins paging through it intently. She watches him take it in: the scrawled-off characters, the little pictures that she’d thought good enough to keep. The not-so-bad lotus, and the one that looks like a lion. And the one that looks somehow squashed. But it’s the good one he returns to, tracing the black lines with white fingers, frowning at it as though it were a puzzle.
“I was having difficulty concentrating,” Yuliang mumbles. “The rain...”
He doesn’t answer. Oddly anxious, Yuliang chews a cuticle. When it stings, she looks down to see that she’s bitten too hard again: blood wells.
“This is how you spend your days now?” he says.
“I mostly do them after I study.”
“Have you had lessons?”
She laughs. “When would I have had lessons?” Then, realizing he means at the Hall, she bites her lip. “No. Never. I—I just like to try to draw things sometimes. I’m no good at all.”
He purses his lips. “Actually, you are. You’re very good.”
The compliment all but takes her breath away. “I’m no Shi Tao,” she manages finally. “You can surely see that--”
“It’s interesting,” he goes on, ignoring the comment.
“That you decided to do – this.” He points to where she’s tried to show depth with clumsy cross-hatch, a technique she’d seen on the cover of a New Youth issue “None of the old masters would pay this much attention to depth.”
“I know. It’s silly.”
“That’s not a criticism. Artists—modern artists--should paint the world as it is. Not just as some—some empty exercise. In aesthetic.” Turning slightly, he waves at the scroll that has hung in the room since before he first led her up to it. “How many versions of that picture hang on people’s walls, do you think?”
Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of the international best-selling novel The Painter from Shanghai. She lived for five years in Japan, first as a student and then as a journalist. She now lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.