Brushstrokes in Time

Leilei, shao, fei, stars, artists
Sylvia Vetta's novel puts you in the shoes of an artist struggling to paint under the shadow of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

Art, like many of life’s greatest pleasures, cannot be understood until it is taken away. In Mao’s China of the Cultural revolution, making something as simple as an Impressionist painting would have had you arrested, sent to a labour camp – or worse.

Sylvia Vetta’s novel “Brushstrokes in Time” was inspired by many conversations with the Chinese artist Qu Leilei, a founder of the Stars Artists movement. The movement was a daring, perhaps suicidal, attempt to reclaim artistic freedom in the midst of one of the worst purges in history. Sylvia’s novel is a fictional account of Xiaodong ‘Little Winter’ – a budding artist whose life and love is shorn by the twin tides of the Cultural Revolution and the Stars Artists movement.

For those of us outside the Communist bloc, we know of the Cultural Revolution as but an exercise in estimating death counts. 400,000 or 10 million – it is debated even today. What numbers cannot depict are the souls of human beings. That is the forte of the artist – who expresses tragedy in something as simple as a painting of Spring’s warm colours overcoming the cold hues of Winter.

Artists are the eyes that see into the soul.

This was all that Xiaodong said to the Red Guards – the paramilitary students who took the law into their own hands. For this phrase, she was beaten, and her childhood lover imprisoned for six months.

Parents often compare the hardships of their youth to that of their children. In Xiaodong’s case, the hardships are those of a different world altogether. She writes in the sunset of her life, to a daughter who only ever knew the freedom of the United States. A daughter to whom she is trying to explain what it’s like to grow up in Communist China, with the threat of execution serving as a constant censor.

Xiaodong’s narrative of the Cultural Revolution is chilling. Schoolchildren turn on one another, beating their teachers to death for the slightest suspicion of treachery (however it is defined at that point in time). You cannot dare to go against the mob – incited by nationalist fervour. They were young and knew not what they did – a point Xiaodong takes pains to explain to her daughter.

Through brief reels of the poignant episodes, we can see that hardship is everywhere – but so is the beauty of existence. We see famines, state repression and the loss of loved ones but also moments of joy – an illicit kiss stolen on the Great Wall of China, the joy of discovering new inspiration for a painting, the immense relief when the Cultural Revolution comes to an end. Everything Xiaodong finds joyful is because of her loved ones, in particular, her mother who taught her how to paint.

Every time you pick up a paintbrush you will remember her. Art to Bo Lin was another dimension and she held your baby hand to help you make your first strokes.

Xiaodong’s artistic emancipation comes when she is introduced to the Star Artists. The period is just after the arrest of the Gang of Four. It was an unthinkable moment for China – as Deng Xiaoping brought the country from communism to its slow march to capitalism. Neither system is depicted as an economic one in the novel – rather, we see how each affects the artist’s ability to speak. In September 1979, the Star Artists, who had been denied all expression, brazenly held an exhibition on the walls of the Beijing National Gallery. It was the first public viewing of contemporary art in China.

Stars, artists, march, china
The Stars March in 1979

Jumping forward in time, Xiaodong’s daughter in the United States enjoys a completely different world of freedom. She can travel freely, engage in romantic relationships and listen to Japanese music on her iPod. One shudders to imagine the penalty for this in revolutionary China.

Weiwei and I had known each other nearly all our lives and we had never kissed before. If you are ever able to visit China you will notice that people don’t kiss on the street. That time in Paris when I was uncomfortable with its ritual kiss on the cheeks you’d asked me, ’Mummy, why are you so cold to people?’

Some cultural things are hard to change and personal things like that are probably the hardest. Intimacy means more in private. That is what the word ‘intimate’ means. It’s private. You don’t have to copy me: you are an American girl.

What makes the narrator so heart-rending is that she writes as a mother who was once a daughter. Her memories of her own mother during the revolution are equal parts beautiful and traumatizing. The cruel treatment meted out to her parents for briefly supporting the ‘wrong’ political outfit is difficult to imagine a child watching.

Brushstrokes in Time walks the line between prose and reality. But it reminds us that reality can be oppressive to art. During the cultural revolution, only the styles of Socialist Realism were permitted, where the subject must depict the ‘people’ either toiling in the fields or performing some everyday act with revolutionary fervour. The simple joys – of  creating a landscape, or a sunset or even a face that’s an abstract collection of lines – are all forbidden. In daring to explore these, artists in the midst of oppression found a way to tell the people’s stories. So too does this novel, though not written as a firsthand account, tell the story of life amidst China’s repressive past.

It can give you a new eye for art, and the everyday freedoms of expression we take for granted. In an era of rising nationalism, one hopes that we will learn from history’s mistakes – and make our own brushstrokes bold enough for our times.


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