Chinese artist Mu Xin secretly created 33 landscape paintings while he was under house arrest from 1977 to 1979, during the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
Thanks to a promised donation from Rosenkranz Charitable Foundation, these paintings will soon become part of the Yale University Art Gallery’s permanent collection. The paintings — which reflect an experimental technique in Chinese art — will be exhibited at the gallery in 2006 once renovations are completed.
All 33 works were displayed for the first time at the gallery in the fall of 2001, in conjunction with 66 prison notes written by Mu Xin during his incarceration from 1971 to 1972. The exhibit — organized by the gallery and the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago — then moved to the University of Chicago, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Asia Society in New York City. The paintings are now in storage in New Haven.
The paintings, collectively called “Tower Within a Tower,” synthesize Chinese and Western aesthetic sensibilities and intellectual traditions, according to a catalogue created by the gallery on display in 2001.
“Some [paintings] are very European in feel. Others have a more Chinese feel,” David Sensabaugh, curator of Asian art at the gallery, said.
Robert Rosenkranz ’62, head of the Rosenkranz Charitable Foundation, chose to donate the paintings to the gallery because he wanted students to enjoy them, Sensabaugh said.
“Mr. Rosenkranz was very pleased with the exposure that the exhibition had had,” Sensabaugh said. “Yale would become a permanent home where [the paintings] would be accessible, as opposed to the foundation where they’re locked away.”
Each work measures 13 by seven inches and was executed in gouache Chinese ink on Western style watercolor paper. Mu Xin produced a sponge-like effect by using decalomania, which according to the gallery’s catalogue is a process whereby the artist spreads gouache on a sheet of paper, lays another sheet on top and presses down, then peels off the second sheet.
“Mu Xin is experimenting with medium in ways in which other artists haven’t done,” Sensabaugh said. “What he’s doing is very unusual in Chinese painting.”
Mu Xin could not use expensive materials or light colors because he worked at night under house arrest, said Sadako Ohki, assistant curator of Asian art at the gallery.
“Because he did them at night, the colors are quite dark, though in some cases red and tan colors are used,” Ohki said.
Sensabaugh said Mu Xin did not try to send a political message, “but given that they were produced at the end of the Cultural Revolution, [the paintings] convey something of that specific time and place.”
Sensabaugh added that he was grateful for the gift.
“[The paintings] represent a very important episode in the history of modernism in China in the second half of the 20th century,” Sensabaugh said. “As a teaching institution, to be able to have that is great.”
Ohki said the paintings will be an important addition to the gallery’s 6,000 piece collection of Asian art.
“Mu Xin is very unique,” she said. “There’s nothing like this in our collection.”