Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

I never heard of the Chinese painter Pan Yuliang (1899-1977) until I picked up Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter From Shanghai, but it's easy to see why Epstein would want to paint the story of a woman who shocked pre-Communist China with nude self-portraits reminiscent of Cezanne. Little is known about Yuliang, other than her status as a prostitute, concubine, and Parisian artist, and Epstein does a superb job showing what her life might have been like.

Epstein quickly draws the reader into the story of an innocent orphan girl sold to a brothel by her uncle to support his opium habit. She adopts the name Yuliang, or Good Jade, and learns the ropes from the brothel's "top girl" and Yuliang's first love, Jinling. Yuliang is told by Jinling to think of the body as just skin in order to survive. Later, after Pan Zanhua, the wealthy tax inspector, liberates her from the brothel and makes her his second wife, Yuliang begins putting her sketches ahead of the reading and writing lessons her husband prepares for her. Zanhua is a modern man (who also frees her from the confines of bound feet) and supports her desire to pursue art even when it takes her far from him. Yuliang's first instructor, Hong Ye, tells her to see the body as more than skin, and Epstein uses sensual language, her own flowing brushstrokes, to make Yuliang's art come to life.

At the end of chapter 31 in the review copy I received from Epstein, she writes: Forcing herself to pause, Yuliang refills her glass, watching Mirror Girl do the same. For an instant, that framed image seems inexplicably shocking. As though she were pouring herself a glass of blood. And yet lifting the glass again, she can't help but think that she'd like to fill a canvas with this color. With precisely this color, which is not cadmium or terra rose or even manganese violet but some uncapturable combination of them all--a tone both illicit and essential.

Epstein shows Yuliang's rise to fame in the art world, uniquely combining techniques from the East and West, as well as the controversy that arises when her nudes are on display. She tackles the cultural norms of the day, particularly the sensitive issue of women art students attending classes with nude models, along with the political turmoil affecting China in the 1920s and 1930s. The novel never once falls flat, with Epstein carrying the reader seamlessly through each transition in Yuliang's life. She brings Yuliang's art and the creative process to life in such a way that you don't need to be an art aficionado to appreciate Yuliang's work.

I'm someone who strolls through art museums admiring the work but rarely stopping to ponder a particular piece for any length of time, but I spent a lot of time on Epstein's website staring at Yuliang's paintings. I sat there contemplating the real story of an artist who overcame the prison of the brothel, the low social status of concubine (and woman), and stifling cultural norms but left so little of the truth behind. The paintings themselves tell a story, and it's not hard to see why Epstein felt a need to fill in the gaps of Yuliang's life story.

Epstein's first novel is a huge effort, but all the hard work paid off.


Jennifer was kind enough to let me interview her, and I will post the interview tomorrow. Stay tuned to find out how she first learned of Pan Yuliang, how she researched the book, and what she's writing now!

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of The Painter From Shanghai from the author for review purposes.


Serena said...

This sounds like a fantastic novel. Remember that one exhibit in Worcester where I stared at that set of three paintings of the one woman and wrote that poem in three parts? I just love art...painting, know me...

I can't wait to read this one.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. This book sounds SO good! I'm looking forward to your interview with the author.

By the way, I tagged you for a meme HERE :)

Dawn said...

Okay....I may just read this one too.....

Anna said...

Serena: Yes, I do remember that exhibit. You'll have to dig out that poem again. It would be great to read it again after all these years.

Shana: Thanks for the tag. Look for my response soon. :)

Dawn: Glad to help expand your reading list! :)

Mark David said...

"a tone both illicit and essential"--Yes, I think that describes how Epstein crafted the details of the story... I loved this book, glad to see you did too Anna :)

Anna said...

Mark David: Thanks!