By Jennifer Cody Epstein
I’m always attracted by novels with a backdrop of art, controversial times and exotic locales and quickly became engrossed in The Painter from Shanghai. Only at the end did I realize the central character and many of the supporting ones actually lived. The times were dangerous and the daring commitment of those chronicled in the book’s pages is penetrating.
The author has written a fictional account of Pan Yuliang, a Chinese artist often known in her own country as the “Famous Western-Style Woman Painter”—a title she abhorred because it noted her gender. As a young girl in the early 1900s she was sold to a brothel by her uncle. This is the story of her origins and how she managed to leave that life to enter the world of art, something unheard of in those times, to become a well-known international artist and professor. The reader travels with her from China to Paris to Rome and back to China as she maneuvers between the strong pressures of Chinese tradition, dedication to her art and the political, sometimes deadly upheaval of the 1930s and 1940s. The book provides excellent entertainment as a novel. But it also educates about strict Chinese conventions, some of the heart-breaking practices Chinese women had to endure, and the intersection of Communism and Chiang Kai-shek’s Republicans. Above all it’s about the inner life of an artist and hard choices she makes to adhere to her dream.
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