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Westerners may not be familiar with the name Pan Yuliang, one of the more important Chinese artists who influenced the Post-Impressionist art movement, but in Epstein's eloquent novel we grow to know this gifted artist from her birth as Xiuqing in 1895, and her early years as an orphan protected by her opium-addicted uncle who sold her into a brothel at age fourteen. Enough space is allotted in this tale to allow us to learn the traditions of the 'flower houses' and the brutalities and consequences of life as a prostitute, but Epstein is careful to balance the sad with the radiant in the relationship between the newly renamed Yuliang and her beautiful 'teacher' Jinling with whom she has her first love affair, and Yuliang's subsequent rescue from the brothel through the kindness and concern showered upon her by a handsome gentleman Pan Zanhua - the man with whom she not only enters into the relationship of being his concubine, but also benefits from his support of her position as a woman and as an artist.
The story spans Pan Yuliang's life from these early beginnings to her death in 1977, a life that brought her exposure to the West, with awards from the schools of art in China, Italy and France resulting in renown as a gifted artist who just happened to be a woman with a past, the many private and public pains she endured as her native country moved from the reign of the Emperors through the rise and fall of Chiang Kai-shek, the invasion by the Japanese, and the new order of Communism, and the influence of the world perception of art that included defeat of some of the finest artists as the battle of the sexes altered the perception of painting the nude figure as an acceptable subject matter in a climate of global turmoil.
Epstein manages to write as intricately about history and Chinese tradition as well as luminously about the act of creativity. Few writers can match the descriptive language of the emergence of the visual: 'But true art must contain an emotional range that speaks to the viewer. Speaks...not by lulling them into a false sense of complacency, but by probing. Challenging. Even hurting, if need be. Anything to force us beyond life's easier thoughts.' 'Has it ever occurred to you that our wounds are what drive us to create?...What if those who've lost something compensate for it in their work? In that case the damage helps them. It's what compels them to create...And it might explain why the best artists tend to be the poorest.'
THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI begs to become a film. But until that happens, this elegant and passionate book is one to treasure repeatedly. It is a work of art. Grady Harp, July 08The Painter from Shanghai: A Novel Overview
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