Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fiction: The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Painter from Shanghai (Historical Fiction) is an atmospheric and enthralling debut novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein. If you have never thought about twentieth-century Chinese art,or the effect of politics on artistic expression, this book will have you pondering these and wanting to learn more. Based on the life of Pan Yuliang, a woman painter who overcame prostitution and sexism to become one of the most respected artists of pre-Communist China, The Painter from Shanghai depicts Madame Pan as a woman who struggles with her shameful past and culture's sexism. In one pivotal scene, Yuliang makes a breakthrough about her adolescence in a brothel and her current difficulty with painting nudes:

And yet studying her model again now, Yulian suddenly realizes that her
troubles, then and now, arise from her own failure to see skin as either more or
less than itself; to see it outside of a spectrum of pain. In her old life
it was a liability, a soft surface waiting for wounds. As such at the
academy it inspires not creative passion but a wave of remembered
revulsion. And in both places she's been unable--hard as she might try--to
see it as beautiful. . . She thinks of Jinling, not in death, as she was the
last time Yuliang saw her, but in those impossibly early days when Yuliang first
began to attend to her. Before she fully understood a body's worth in
monetary terms, and could value it only in the currency of beauty. She
thinks of the way Jinling's skin had looked early in the morning. Sheened
in perspiration, stretched out in sheer joy. Limned in the early light of
a sunrise.

When Pan Yuliang recovers this sense of the body's beauty, she is able to
improve the quality of her nudes. You can see samples of Pan Yuliang's
paintings on Jennifer Cody Epstein's website. Madame Pan travels to France during the 1920s on a painting fellowship and returns to a China that has been wracked by revolution and Japanese imperialism. The last section of the novel takes place in 1936Nanjing, just before the horrible invasion. A new approach to the arts dictates that art must celebrate the common people and revolutionary ideals, and Pan Yuliang's last exhibit is a victim of this zeal. She flees to Paris, and never returns to China.

Anchoring the tale of Pan Yuliang's artistic growth is her marriage to Pan Zanhua, a custom's collector. Epstein sketches a sympathetic portrayal of a man who is caught between Western-style ideals and conservative Chinese values regarding marriage. Marriage to Pan Zanhua simultaneously frees Yuliang--from prostitution, illiteracy, and financial stress--but keeps her in the loving, possessive grip of a man faced with his own struggle to keep his wife close to his side while allowing her the freedom to travel for her art and safety.

I strongly recommend the Painter from Shanghai for its ability to capture the complexity of twentieth-century Chinese history, the artist's creative process, and last but not least, the character of a woman who faced so much adversity and overcame it to pursue her calling to paint.

1 comment:

Book Bird Dog said...

Enjoyed your review of the book. Am also fascinated by Chinese history, particularly after the fall of the Qing dynasty, during the invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese, and the following civil war. The late 1930s I believe.