Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Jennifer Cody Epstein On Prostitute-Concubine-Post-Impressionist Pan Yuliang

A brief interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein, author of The Painter from Shanghai, a novel based upon the life of Chinese painter Pan Yuliang.

Pan Yuliang is a wonderful artist -- but one who is often discussed more for her struggle to become one (having been sold at the age of 14 into prostitution by her only surviving relative) and for her nude works (at a time when such works were scandalous).

I'm delighted to have Jennifer's insight here...

SPS: When/how did you first become aware of Pan Yuliang?

Jennifer: I was actually the Guggenheim with my husband and some relatives—roughly ten years ago. The exhibition—which was amazing--was on Modern Chinese Art, and there was just one image by Pan Yuliang on display. But it drew me over immediately; it was a typical Pan Yuliang in that it was very evocative of Matisse and Cezanne, and the bright, bold colors and distinctly Western setting (as compared to the huge propaganda-style images and much more subtle ink paintings around it) really stood out for me.

SPS: What was it that captured you & compelled you to write the book?

Jennifer: Upon seeing the picture, I went over to study it more closely. And when I read about Pan’s story (prostitute-concubine-Post-Impressionist icon; really?!) it just blew me away. I’d never heard of her before—but I couldn’t, at that moment, understand why---it struck me that everyone should know about her. I suppose writing the book was one way to try to understand her, and to try to imagine what making that sort of an extraordinary journey would be like.

SPS: How long did it take to create the book?

Jennifer: From inception to publication it was almost exactly ten years--so a long time! Granted, throughout that period I quite my job at NBC, finished an MFA at Columbia and also had my two daughters, so there were some side-trips.

SPS: Why write a novel, rather than a biography?

Jennifer: Mainly because I'd made the decision--after ten years in journalism--to try writing fiction, which I'd always wanted to do. But also because Pan's story ended up being one of those where I actually had to use creative license in order to get any sort of a complete sense of her. Even the art historians I spoke to confirmed that there is so little actually factually known about her (even the birthdate on her gravestone in Paris is generally agreed to be inaccurate) that in order to get a full sense of her life, one has to simply imagine.

SPS: You mention there is little documentation or biographical information about her... What do you think that is due to? A lack of respect for her, her art? Did her popularity increase after her death, when it was "too late" for much information? Or was it a general lack of respect for women in general? Or just a problem in general of artists from that time? Something else?

Jennifer: I think the lack of documentation was in part a combination of all these factors. But I also think that Pan herself kept a pretty tight grip on her story and was very careful about the versions of it she allowed out. This isn't surprising, given how wildly controversial both her work and her history were, and also given the fact that people tended to pay more attention to the latter than the former.

SPS: Have you seen Hua hun, and if so, what are your thoughts on the film?

Jennifer: I have. I actually knew about the film fairly early into my research, but held off watching it until I was well grounded in my own book and characters---I didn't want to risk being overly influenced by it. think I finally sat through it after I'd already finished with Shanghai in my book and was moving on to Paris. I certainly appreciated Hua Hun for its beauty--it was very well-done, and I loved the intense aestheticism of it visually. But I did feel that--like the biography it's based on--the movie portrayed Pan Yuliang as somewhat less of a self-determined woman and artist than I came to see her as. The general sense I got from watching it was that she was more or less shaped by the actions of the men around her; e.g., rescued despite herself from the brothel, guided into art and school by her husband, etc. I sensed such a strength of character and will in her paintings, though, that I really wanted to give her more of a role in her evolution as an artist.

It's been noted to me, incidentally, that some readers think i made her too strong--they don't find her particularly likeable. But my sense is (both from my own musings and from what I've heard) that she wasn't an easy person in real life to either know or to like--so I suppose in some ways that just makes me hope that I got something right!

SPS: Did she have any children?

Jennifer: She did not. The biographical info points to at least one pregnancy but (as I write [in the book]) that was terminated. She did adopt her husband's son, however; he's still alive I believe, in Anhui province.

SPS: If you could say in one sentence (of what took a decade to create) -- what you think is the sum of the book... I guess that would be two sentences --

Jennifer: The sum, for me, is really the boundless creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit (though I hope that doesn't make people gag!). The truth is, Pan Yuliang was pretty much damned from the start by so many factors--her gender, her class, her country of origin; the fact that her parents died and her uncle was an opium addict; the fact that she was sold into a brothel. It's a set of circumstances that most women would simply not have survived. And yet thanks to her resilience, talent and the sheer bravery she displayed in painting what she wanted, regardless of cost, she has left other women and artists this extraordinary example and legacy. (I'm sorry, that's four sentences and a lot of semicolons!)

SPS: That's OK -- it took me how many sentence fragments just to get near a question. *wink* Do you have a "one sentence bit" of what you hope the reader walks away with from The Painter From Shanghai?

Jennifer: That even in the most apparently dire of circumstances you still have the power to shape your own dreams, goals, life.

SPS: And, in one sentence, what did you walk away from the experience with?

Jennifer: The thrill of having had Pan Yuliang and China as a job for the past decade (how lucky is that!?), and a renewed faith in myself for actually having published a historical novel with family and sanity (at least somewhat) intact!

Thanks, Jennifer; I can't wait to read it!

You can read more on Jennifer's process with the book here; and catch a live interview with the author on XXBN's Cult of Gracie, tonight (Wednesday, July 16th) at 9 P.M. (central).

Call in questions and comments are welcome at 1 (646) 200-3136. (And rumor has it that a copy of The Painter from Shanghai will be given away to live callers...)

If you miss the show, you can listen to the archived show (or download it) here.


See also:

The Nude in the Art of Pan Yuliang, by Elsa Favreau.

A Lonely Legacy of Pan Yuliang: Capital Museum in Beijing Exhibit

See more of Pan Yulian's works here.

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