Mu Xin (b. 1927) - Recent Paintings
During the period 2002-2003 the painter, writer, poet and musician Mu Xin produced two complete sets of landscape paintings, one of sixty works and the other of forty. These new works are a major landmark in the artist’s life and a distinctive contribution to the continuing history of classical Chinese landscape painting. Mu Xin’s latest paintings bring ancient traditions and classical ideals into the modern world once again, as did his earlier works, and engage tradition and modernism in creative interaction.
His celebrated earlier suite of landscape paintings, painted while under house arrest in Shanghai in the late 1970s and now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, consisted of a set of thirty-three small paintings in ink and color. Using techniques drawn from both China and Europe, including the European Surrealist technique of transfer painting and the traditional subjects of Chinese literati landscape painting, he explored chance and accidental imagery in the creation of landscape subjects that seemed to reflect the conflicted and ambiguous circumstances of not only his own artistic identity but also that of China as a whole during a critical episode in history, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. He had set out, at that difficult time, to produce fifty small landscape paintings to reflect somehow the fifty years of his life (he was born in 1927), and completed thirty-three of them. Viewers have tried to understand those paintings as being somehow an embodiment or reflection, seen somewhat uncertainly, of his artistic life up to that point. Despite what might seem to be darkness and pessimism in some of them, and despite their apparent representation of deep conflicts and painful dichotomies of a particular segment of China’s and Mu Xin’s life, they insistently evoke a mood of tender lyricism, and he has told friends that they were painted with a sense of joy and celebration.
Mu Xin’s enjoyment of the physical process of image making can be shared by anyone who looks closely at his landscape suite of the late 1970s while trying to imagine the technical processes he employs. One becomes aware of the importance to him of the accidental and the unexpected, and of the role played in his art by spontaneous improvisation. His improvisation is like that of a jazz musician, or, in fact, that of a classical Chinese literati artist, who, at least ideally, began a painting with no object in mind and let his images unfold from the wandering brush.
But there are many ways of thinking about Mu Xin’s distinctive art. It would be possible and indeed interesting to look at his art within the art-historical context of painters born in China around 1927, or of Chinese painters who now live abroad, or of Chinese artists who have studied European art, or of twentieth-century Chinese painters more generally – or, obviously, of modern artists around the world. The stature of Mu Xin is such that much scholarship of this type will be produced in time. My own interest in his work is much more personal and subjective than that, however.
From the first moment I saw his paintings, in 1986, what most impressed me was the sense that each small painting was a complete world in itself, a separate experience – almost, perhaps, a separate experiment - with its own mood, or season, its own light and atmosphere, its own artistic and expressive intentions, each like a separate musical composition, and each with its own individual integrity and its fully satisfying quality of wholeness. I saw many elements that reminded me of other painters and other times, elements of motif or color or theme or brushwork that lent strong historical accents to his creations, here a touch of the European Surrealists, there an echo of the seventeenth-century Individualists of China, and everywhere the impression that these paintings were a part of the legacy of the great Song masters of landscape painting, the artists of the tenth and eleventh centuries who had indeed invented the genre of landscape painting for the world. There were many suggestions of Guo Xi’s and Leonardo’s fascination with the ways unpredictable and accidental forms can aid in the invention of plausible naturalistic imagery, and there were hints of the influence of photography on modern image making – and much more, of course.
What I felt most powerfully though when I first saw Mu Xin’s art was the unexplained integrity and completeness of every painting, each one reverberating with echoes of other times and places and suggesting dialogues with artists throughout time. Of course I tried to analyze and understand his techniques and procedures, sought to locate influences and connections, and endeavored to locate the artist and his work within an historical structure. But I would not have been impelled to engage in these had not I seen thirty-three distinctive creations, each the unique product of an unmistakable artistic personality.
It was not necessary to know that the artist was also a writer; the subjects of his landscapes were like an epiphany of great literary, poetic, and cultural ideals concentrated in this set of paintings. It was not necessary to know that the artist was a musician, or that he loves music from around the world; one could see that each painting was like a miniature musical composition, and each like a performance. They remind me now (as does his new work) of the beautiful little dances Schubert wrote for the piano, each small piece accompanied by its date of composition, or of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” small individual compositions, composed one by one over the years. There was even a certain melancholy about the paintings that harmonized with such music, or with that of Chopin, or the late quartets of Beethoven.
Now, quite surprisingly to me, we learn that Mu Xin has been painting even smaller pictures, and that during the period 2002-2003 he painted a total of no less than one hundred works in sets of sixty and forty, a selection of which has been made for this catalogue. This is another stunning accomplishment, one to set beside the earlier suite and to ponder in the context of the artist’s life and art. Personally I am dazzled by the brilliance of this new achievement, and by its beauty and originality. Many of the new works look very much like miniature handscrolls only an inch or two high, and some are hardly large enough to see clearly without a magnifying glass. But each is somehow once again a remarkable visual creation containing a complete world within its few inches.
The very fact of the small size of many of his new paintings tends to focus interest on the matter of size itself. Here I hardly need point to the immediate connections his new paintings establish with several of the most hallowed and admired of the ideals of classical Chinese art: the miniature tray landscapes of the Tang dynasty, the archetype of Japan’s bonsai; the “world within a pot” of philosophical Daoism; and what was probably the central illusion of Chinese landscape painting itself, “a thousand miles within a few inches.” Indeed, Mu Xin’s most recent works may well be the most sophisticated and compelling realization of these old ideals since the Song dynasty.
Mu Xin’s miniature landscapes may recall to some another traditional favorite of Chinese connoisseurs and collectors, from emperors to courtesans: the tiny, miniature sleeve scroll, so small it could easily be hidden within one’s hand or slipped into one’s sleeve. Entire worlds could be contained within the few inches of such miniature scrolls, which could be easily and even secretly unrolled and entered into by their owners, perhaps while a dull report was being heard at court. And in the hands of Mu Xin each of these modern versions of an ancient form becomes an intimate personal journey into a uniquely evocative and imaginary realm, whether into a fairy tale-like “Palace on the Ocean Floor’; the abstract, sculptural, and yet almost photographic “Pile of Rocks’; the ethereal “Lovers’ Tomb,” or the elegantly simple “Quiet Woods” or “Snowy Mountains.” These are extraordinarily lyrical and inviting worlds in miniature. Miniature landscape paintings have not had great popularity in modern times, as far as I know, however, and the names of artists who have seriously explored this unusual format do not leap to mind. It is noteworthy, therefore, that Mu Xin has chosen a format that is rarely utilized and in which it is notoriously difficult to achieve distinction. We may recall his miniature and almost illegible “Prison Notes,” written secretly in the early 1970s under very different circumstances from his more recent life, and reflect on the coincidence of these two major acts of life affirmation coming to us in miniature form thirty years apart.
Mu Xin continues in his new paintings to explore accidental effects, and has clearly found some new ways of achieving the unexpected and not entirely planned images he likes to begin with. Part of his genius is clearly in being able to see what potential for evocative landscape his accidental or random effects hold, and knowing how to proceed to give additional shape to those images. The smooth, ghostly mountain shapes of many of his earlier large-scale paintings are now almost always clothed in abstract textures, patterns, and striations, and take forms that suggest geological or biological patterns, interplanetary worlds, or the crystalline structures inside rocks or fractured metals.
Music continues to inform Mu Xin’s landscape art in several ways. One of his grand rocky cave-like collections of stalagmites and stalactites is titled “Opera,” and one sees how apropos this is in the suggestions of a fantastic geological stage-like setting, of a dramatic narrative, massed chorus, and of a soloist arising from the stone stage to sing an aria. This and other compositions evoke as well the fascination of Chinese connoisseurs with fantastically shaped table rocks and the famed rock formations of the typical Suzhou garden. Another composition from the new collections is called “Organ,” and suggests both the massed pipes of a grand church organ and the grand Baroque organ compositions of Bach. Here too, as earlier, are the images of silence, of deep spaces, of light and reflections, of rivers, lakes, and oceans, of air and rain and snow that have always attracted Mu Xin. They are somehow both universal in implication and extremely personal and intimate in effect. I find myself responding in a highly personal way to many of Mu Xin’s new paintings, almost as if they had been painted here on the island on which I live. His “Light from the Other Shore” could be the nighttime lights glittering along the northern shore of the Olympic Peninsula as I see it across Puget Sound. His “Water and Moon,” and his many moonlight landscapes capture perfectly the glittering moonlit water just off our coasts.
Mu Xin’s titles, however, are not precise or closely defined by specific details or motifs. What he calls “Beach” could just as well be a cloudy evening sky. His “Small Island” might be the Fujian coast, and his rockscapes and snow scenes sometimes look like icebergs. One suspects that the naming of these images is another aspect of the artist’s spontaneous engagement with invention. First he invents, then he names, which is how the greatest masters of earlier ages created such hallowed landscape themes as “Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers” and “Cloud Mountains,” which are at the heart of the classical Chinese landscape painting heritage Mu Xin brings so beautifully into the twenty-first century. All of these paintings, like the earlier suite, convey above all an impression of being vitally concerned with the elements of existence in nature and the cosmos familiar to us all from our private experiences of life, time, weather, and season. In this way, they cross social and cultural boundaries and reach us all.
Mu Xin is a painter, a writer, a poet and a musician, and it is unlikely that each of these activities is entirely isolated from the other in his life, or in his emotional sensibilities. Surely, somehow, they all connect in ways that result in the distinctive expressive and lyrical character of his art. I am still coming slowly to see how fundamental to his nature and his art both the musical and the dancing, choreographic elements of his creative process are. Coincidentally (or not – who knows!), I am also a writer, painter, and musician (now amateur pianist but long ago a dance band trombonist and pianist in the Big Band age), and I have been thinking about these connection on a personal level for some time. My understanding hasn’t gotten very far, but it is clear to me that the music, art, and literature I enjoy are connected to the experiences and memories of my life, to the songs I grew up with, the paintings I saw and copied as a young man, the great composers, novelists, poets, and painters I encountered and admired along the way; and it is clear that these things are fused to the elements of my personality and character formed both by genetic heritage and personal experience. It is common to assert that art and life are separate things, but I have no doubt that art is formed from life, and that a little song I heard sung on the radio in the 1940s – perhaps by Edith Piaf – is a small part of the painting of a late winter evening along our shores that I have been struggling with in my halting, amateur way.
Mu Xin’s life and experiences encompass so many worlds and so dramatic a time in modern history, and his own life has been such a rich exploration of life, music, art, and literature, that his painting could well be expected to explode with drama and emotion. Sometimes it does, no doubt, but in his recent landscapes we see the artist reflecting, in a spirit of tender lyricism, as he has done for so long, on the phenomenon of beauty in life and experience. Beauty has not played a major role in shaping modern art and culture, perhaps, but it has certainly shaped the art of those artists, writers, and musicians I most admire. Mu Xin’s life has led him into many worlds, and wherever he has gone he has found beauty, and found the ways to convey his experiences of those discoveries to us visually. He is a true artist of the world.
Richard M. Barnhart
John M. Schiff Professor Emeritus of the History of Art
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