The Notes of Mu Xin: Chinese Prisoner Padded His Clothes

It has long been known that even under the most draconian regimes of 20th-century totalitarian terror, certain intrepid souls succeeded against all odds in creating memorable works of art and literature. Exactly how such feats of artistic rebellion and realization could be achieved in such circumstances is to most of us, I think, beyond the power of comprehension. These accomplishments are likely to strike us as a superhuman-in other words, as something miraculous-and most of us are not in the business of explaining miracles. Clearly, something more than sheer talent is involved in these endeavors-a vocation, perhaps, for some kind of moral heroism-and that, too, is a phenomenon with which few of us are closely acquainted.

The Chinese émigré writer and painter who calls himself Mu Xin (pronounced “Moo Shin”) belongs to this special class of 20th-century artist-survivor, and the exhibition of his writings and pictures that has now been mounted at the Asia Society’s C.V. Starr Gallery is, among other things, a vivid reminder of how little we know about the degradation and repression that many of China’s most gifted artists and writers suffered under the long and terrible regime of Mao Zedong. While the horrors of the Nazi era in Europe are now a familiar, well-documented chapter of 20th-century history and at least a part of the history of the Soviet Gulag is coming to light, for most of us the terrors and consequences of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) remain a blank page in our collective memory. This in itself makes it difficult for us to place a figure like Mu Xin in any meaningful context.

All the work in this exhibition-writings as well as pictures-dates from the years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the difficult period that followed; during this period, Mu Xin was either in prison or under house arrest. The “prison notes,” all of which are reproduced from the original manuscripts in the sumptuously illustrated, cloth-bound catalog that accompanies the exhibition, are said to have been composed on sheets of paper secretly saved by Mu Xin from the supply given to him by his captors for the purpose of writing forced confessions.

How did he manage to salvage so much from his prison ordeal? We’re told that he “hid these notes in his padded prison clothes and miraculously left with them intact when he was freed.” All of which is indeed a miracle, since the oeuvre that has survived consists of 66 sheets of prison notes and 33 ink-and-gouache landscape paintings. (The paintings generally measure 13 by 7 inches.) All of the paintings Mu Xin created prior to his imprisonment, which are said to number some 500 works, were destroyed as “counterrevolutionary”; so, too, was much of Mu Xin’s earlier writing, which is said to have consisted of some 21 book-length manuscripts.

Mu Xin was born Sun Pu, in 1927, to an affluent family in a region north of Shanghai, where he later studied at the Fine Arts Institute. Even before this training in the conventions of classical Chinese painting, he had been introduced to Western art and literature. Western art was, of course, known to him mainly from published reproductions: Also illustrated in the catalog for the show are black-and-white images from Mu Xin’s own copy of the 1954 Phaidon Press monograph on Leonardo da Vinci, which is still in his possession-another miracle, under the circumstances. From his acquaintance with these and other reproductions, Mu Xin developed a keen interest in the Renaissance masters, and he speaks of da Vinci, in particular, as an “early teacher.” To the Western eye, certainly, his own paintings are an interesting mix of Western and Chinese landscape conventions.

What strikes a newcomer to Mu Xin’s landscapes, however, is a mood and a style that is more akin to Northern European printmaking and drawing than to anything resembling the brilliantly illuminated pictorial space that’s one of the glories of Renaissance painting. No doubt the fugitive light characteristic of Mu Xin’s landscapes owes much both to the grim conditions in which they were created and the limited materials at the artist’s disposal. But something else may also be involved: a draftsman’s sensibility for shadowy, elegiac images. Alexandra Munroe, one of the principal curators of this exhibition, speaks of these landscape paintings as “a kind of requiem for China’s cultural past,” and that’s indeed how they are likely to impress a Western sensibility-not so much as a remembrance of things past as an attempt to pay homage to a past that has been irrevocably lost.

Ms. Munroe’s further observation that Mu Xin’s landscapes are “wholly modern” and may be usefully compared in this respect to certain 20th-century Surrealist painters-Max Ernst and Oscar Dominguez are cited in the show’s book-is a good deal less persuasive. For Mu Xin’s paintings are nothing if not wholly fixated on the idea of tradition-that is, an attempt to evoke and recall us to pictorial traditions that are gone forever-and that’s a very different project from Surrealism’s avowed ambition to overturn tradition in favor of revolution. The only thing really “modern” about Mu Xin’s paintings is the Western-style watercolor paper on which the landscapes are painted. Even the titles- In Lonely Leisure, Seeking Beautiful Scenery ; Spring Brilliance at Kuaiji ; Lofty Residence of the Wei and Jin ; and so on-signal a nostalgia for a beauty and a world that are now only a memory. That’s not a sentiment that lives on easy terms with Surrealism or any other mode of modernist art. Mu Xin’s accomplishments do not, in any case, really need the burden of such inappropriate comparisons.

Ms. Munroe and her fellow curators and contributors to this unusual exhibition and catalog are to be commended. So is the Rosenkranz Foundation, which has preserved the Landscape of Memory paintings for posterity. Let us hope that this exhibition and the book that accompanies it are but the beginning of a look at what else, in the realm of arts and letters, may have survived the terrors of the Cultural Revolution. This is a history that has apparently not yet been written. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what, as a painter, Mu Xin adds to his pictorial accomplishments now that he’s a resident of New York.

Landscape of Memory: The Art of Mu Xin remains on view at the Asia Society’s C.V. Starr Gallery, 725 Park Avenue at 70th Street, through Sept. 7.