Asian Pacific Art Institute of America
My uncle Mu Jiashan
By Mu Jie
Graduate student, Sculpture major, College of Art, Shanghai University
Since I was a child, when I could remember things, I often heard other people talking about my uncle being a great artist. I never gave it a second thought. In my memory, my uncle was just a humorous and witty person.
On February 24, 1985, which was my birthday, a lot of guests came to our house. I was surrounded by people who were playing with me. One of the adults asked me a question that all adults like to ask children, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I replied loudly without any hesitation, “I will carry manure when I grow up.” All laughed at my answer. The one who taught me such an unusual answer was my uncle, Mu Jiashan.
The thing I loved to do most when I was a child was to sneak into his studio and watch him painting. Although I did not understand what his painting was about, I just loved to be there. I would stay as long as he painted. I was always attracted by some unseen forces. Probably these moments were my quietest moments. Even though greatly influenced by my uncle’s painting, I did not show any interest in art until one day when I was in senior high school, all of a sudden, I felt the impulse to paint. Since then, I have been crazily in love with art and am determined to devote myself to art as a second generation artist in Mu’s family. I was an even-tempered person. This might have helped influence me later when I decided to devote myself to art. Looking back, I feel lucky that I could grow up in such a family environment and am proud of my impulsive decision. Now I am only a beginner in my trade, being a graduate student in the master’s program in sculpture, I always have endless topics to discuss with my uncle. Every time he comes back from his trips lecturing in China, I go to visit him and help him clean up things. Gradually, I have a profounder understanding of his art.
Perhaps because I was so familiar with my uncle, for a long time I did not treat my uncle as an established artist. The first time I witnessed my uncle’s influence was in 2002. I was a student in the Xi’an Art Institute at the time. My uncle was invited from America to lecture in our institute as part of the “Spring Sunlight Plan” sponsored by the Chinese Department of Education. At the end of his lecture there were questions and answers. One of the non-traditional graduate students whose major was Chinese painting took the microphone and asked, “I have seen many of the art works you published in some magazines. Ten years ago, I saw your solo exhibition in Shanghai in 1986. I also saw over ten of your pieces in the “Invitational exhibition of eight Chinese painters” held in Yangzhou in 1987. I was quite overwhelmed by your paintings. I remember that other artists who were invited in that show were Zhou Jingxin, Zhang Youxian and many others. One of them is a vice dean of the Institute of Nanjing Art Academy and the other is a professor. Your works had a great impact on the art world in southern China. So many years have passed. Why did you not continue your road of success? Instead, you are constantly looking for changes in your style?” I was shocked at hearing this question. I did not realize that in 1986, when my uncle was only about twenty-five or twenty-six of age, he had already had such an influence in the art world. As a sculpture major, I used to admire a lot of the solid foundation my uncle had in drawing. Since that day, I started paying more attention to the art in Chinese paintings my uncle spent his life researching and creating.
In my opinion, it is not exaggerated to describe my uncle’s knowledge about art with the phrase “well versed in both Chinese and western learning.” It is needless to say that he understands well the Chinese art that he spends so much time creating and researching, but his profound knowledge and understanding of modern art also impressed me. Many of the things that I did not have a clue about suddenly became clear after a few hints from him, like the sun coming out of the clouds. I admire his acute observations. He can catch the traces of the authors’ thoughts and his explanations are convincing and lively compared to some of the lectures given by some tedious art history professors or some of the art history books that are full of jargon. One art history professor who attended his lectures said that my uncle has seen through modern art inside out. Some of the graduate students who are very keen on modern art would go after me and ask for his lecture recordings after attending his lectures for fear of missing the important things he said.
My uncle used to criticize me for taking modern art for granted and trying to interpret modern art superficially. His suggestion was that one can not just interpret the pictures as they appear. One should, first of all, put oneself in the artist’s position and ask oneself why that artist would create such art works. That way it is easier to find relatively accurate answers. My uncle also instructed me not to compete with my peers and focus my art by comparing myself with my teachers at school or the artists of our time. I should learn from masters that I like and admire. That way, I could make progress in my art creation. He told me that people living in America are very lucky because they can see the best art works in the world. Therefore, my uncle would not miss any good exhibitions and would take a lot of pictures when he went to these exhibitions and shared the photos with me and explained to me what he saw in those art works. Every time when this happens, I have a proud feeling of standing on giants’ shoulders looking at the world.
In recent years, my uncle has had a lot of opportunities to come to China for lecture tours at the invitations of many art institutes. Every time, I have gone to his lectures, not wanting to miss these opportunities to study. Even though my uncle always wears casual clothes, he looks stylish no matter what he has on. Sometimes an old jacket makes him look good. Yet, when going out to lecture, he puts on a suit, which makes him very scholarly looking. With that look, he always starts his lectures in a graceful manner. His topics range from the greatness of Italian art and the Renaissance to the admiration of the masses about popular art, from reflections about modern art and post-modernism to the current puzzles in the art world, from the essence and strength that western art pursues to the intangible elegance and grace in eastern art. Not long after he starts lecturing, he reveals his artistic nature, full of energy, full of enthusiasm. Like an erupting volcano, his enthusiasm and his erudite knowledge plus his great scholarly style influence everyone who is present. This excitement shows on everyone’s face. Gradually, everyone is influenced by this mood. Not long after, the whole audience gets excited. I have studied in the art institute for more than five or six years and have attended many lectures, but the ones my uncle has given that excited the whole audience were very rare.
In Summer 2004, my uncle took with him a group of students and teachers from the American-Asian Art Institute to the Yellow Mountains in China to paint. I joined the group for the whole trip. This was the first time since I went to the Art Academy that I saw him create so many pieces of art work in such a short time. I was deeply impressed. I remember that the group that he took with him consisted of more than ten students and teachers of mixed colors and ethnic backgrounds—black, white and yellow. They were all very friendly and organized. When they decided that they would get up at four and go to see the sunrise, when four o’clock came, all was there, and they walked under the moonlight, heading towards Guangming hill from where they were. These American students who were used to living in comfort were trained as an army by my uncle. Of course, the reason he could do so had a lot to do with his four-year military career in China.
When my uncle is with nature, after he puts down his bags, he will all of a sudden turn into a happy kid among the rivers and mountains in nature. He acts like a crazy pupil, painting from dawn to dark, and will not give up painting until he can not see any images. His devotion and his craze for art touches me and inspires me, which also remind me of the famous quote he told me about the Russian oil painting artist Lebin - great work produces a great artist. I remember something that my uncle wrote in an article called “Sketching after searching through all the wonderful hills.” In this article, he said:
It was an extremely good feeling to paint on top of the Yellow Mountains. There was no way for me to search for ways to imitate the masters from ancient times while facing the fairy mountains and clouds and mists that changed their faces a thousand times a day. Therefore, I gave up trying and started my own creation based on what I saw and created the mountains and waters to my heart’s content in my own style. I, Qingkou Shanren, was very peaceful in my heart. Once I reached the top of the mountains, the whole world was very small. Once I settled myself, all the masters before my time, such as Meiqing Daoren, Huang Binhong and Liu Haisu who created masterpieces on the Yellow Mountains were all behind me. The artist who graduated from Nanjing Art Institute was not a crazy man, I, the “monk” who has only half-bottled knowledge about art was crazy. I forgot who I was and forgot my environment. I forgot about this world. I became immersed in nature until the nature and I became one. All of a sudden, the Yellow Mountains was me and I was the Yellow Mountains. Yellow Mountains seemed to know my nature, and I knew the Yellow Mountains’ nature. Ha ha! What comfort! What satisfaction!
If the works my uncle created in 1985- “Gazing” and “Budha Facing the Wall” – were the results of his artistic pursuit, then, today’s Mu Jiashan who knows both western and Chinese world so well is climbing higher mountains in the art world.
July 8th, 2007
College of Art, Shanghai University