Below, Pan Yuliang’s self-portrait.
BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS
A rainy Fourth is as the best time to dive into well-crafted stories. Elizabeth Cody Steiner’s The Painter from Shanghai retelling of Pan Yuliang’s life. Pan’s transformation from foot-bound prostitute–she was sold to a brothel at age fourteen–to self-actualized painter is dramatic enough to inspire a Chinese opera. In did in fact inspire a movie, Soul of a Painter, featuring the ubiquitous Gong Li. But Steiner steer clear of make-believe. Her research into the many stages of that transformation is flawless. She weaves facts deftly, turning Pan’s struggle and triumph into an impressive book. Pan’s art work itself does not impress me as much as the book does. Her blending of Asian watercolor and western techniques comes off as a badly arranged marriage. Her renderings of the human figure may be laudable efforts, but they seem as lifeless as ancestor portraits. While much of her work in western museums–she left the bulk of her collection, four thousand paintings, to a museum in her hometown–recalls Cezanne, Matisse and other European artists, they are tentative, as if she were trying to find her own voice and failing. It is when she paints flowers that her work comes alive, but compare her paintings to Caillebotte and Berthe Morisot’s and the stiff formality of Asian art becomes more painfully apparent, at least to my western eyes.
Floral themes are among most Impressionists’ and Post-Impressionists’ pictorial legacies, Renoir, who began his career as a china painter, just as Pan Yuliang began her artistic training as an embroiderer, left behind a wealth of flower paintings. Compared to Renoir’s Daniel Ridgway Knight’s have a sweetness that all but spells out Victorian parlor art. The less-is-more crowd certainly will not give it house and room. I happen to like them very much. They have a slightly overripe quality, much as some of the poems in Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, which I have been rereading lately. I happen to like that nearly saccharine fin-de–siecle sensitibility and I like paintings of flowers and gardens almost as much as I like the real thing. Ridgway Knight has an enormous garden in Poissy, forty miles west of Paris. His paintings of local peasants in his garden with the river Seine in the background made him famous all over Europe. Today, he is nearly as Timothy: Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, by Verlyn Klinkerborg has less to do with flowers and much to do with a tortoise, the pet of 18th. Century British natiralist and curate, Gilbert White. Tomothy, who was captured in Turkey, is the narrator in this charming book. Read it and find out what she thinks of our unfortunate species, homosapiens. “…Great tottering beasts.” that we are, only slightly less inclined to kill and catalog, to plunder and hoard as our Victorian ancestors did, we have a great deal to learn from this garrulous observer.