Published today, an atmospheric fictional account of the days of Mao and the Stars Art Movement

book review typewriter

Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta, Claret Press Paperback £7.99

I suppose I did not find this an easy read. This is a story which starts in that most turbulent time in 20th century China during the days of the excesses of the Red Guards and The Gang of Four, all presided over by Mao Tse Tung at his most ruthless and insouciant. Many of these passages are intensely disturbing to the reader: a mark of the success of the author, Sylvia Vetta, in taking us back to this traumatic time of fear and loathing. As the book moves on to the late 1970s and the short-lived The Stars Art Movement, there is time for some humour amongst the repression of the artists and their supporters. For a while, optimism flourishes.

At one level it is a bitter critique of the political process in China, at another a reminder of the tortuous development of the artistic process in a country which had long repressed individualism. At yet another, it is the story of the young and sensitive Xiaodong (trs. ‘Little Winter’), her loss of innocence and her painful rites of passage. The schoolgirl Xiadong recounts, ‘I went on the rampage. At the back of an old temple were niches filled with little statues of Buddha. Over excited, we smashed the heads off. It didn’t feel right but my friends were screaming with excitement . . . Our holy places were where Chairman Mao had walked, lived or swam . . .’.

Seen through the eyes of a young girl born to be an artist, there is a constant disturbing ring of authenticity about this book. Much of that, I giuess, can be traced back to the genesis of this book when Sylvia Vetta met Qu Leilei, himself one of the Stars, and a series of long interviews resulted.

Brushstrokes in Time066

The climax of this book comes as The Stars display their paintings, woodcuts and sculptures outside the National Gallery in 1979 in an act of impetuous boldness. That, of course, actually did happen. But we have to remember this is a novel and not a factual account. Perhaps because it is so skilfully executed by Sylvia Vetta, I had considerable difficulty in seeing this book just as a novel: the suspension of disbelief is challenging as we meet the various real participants in the Star Art Movement, including the now internationally renowned Ai Weiwei. When the author writes of the actions of the fictional characters like Ai Weiwei, Qu Leilei, Ma Desheng, Huang Rui, Yan Li, Bo Yun and Wang Keping, who were actual participants in the Movement, I found myself saying, ‘Did Ai Weiwei really do that?’, ‘Is this drawn from fact, or is it simply fiction?’ Of course, it is a bit of both.

This is a problem with this book, the problem of the invisible coalescing of fact and fiction. For me that raises more questions than answers. Perhaps I am being over critical. It should certainly be on the ‘must read’ list of anyone interested in the politics and the art of 20th century China. The Stars were crucial in provoking change in China: not just in art but in politics and consciousness. What about another book, drawing upon your excellent sources, Sylvia: the real story of The Stars Art Movement?

Paul Harris

One thought on “Published today, an atmospheric fictional account of the days of Mao and the Stars Art Movement

  1. Thank you Paul for your insightful review. You are of course right that I am indebted to Qu Leilei for the authenticity of the early part of my novel. A considerable amount of background detail came from my in depth interviews with him. After 1982, the story and the historical texture as well as the Little Winter and Hu Weiwei’s story is entirely from my research and my imagination. A reader kindly described them as Chinese Romeo and Juliet striving for love against the odds.
    When I began to research the Stars my intention was indeed to write a non-fiction book. There wasn’t a eureka moment when I decided it should be a novel in which I invite readers to walk in my fictitious artist Little Winter’s shoes. Reading Jung Chang’s Mao and Wei Jingsheng’s The Courage to Stand Alone, I came to the conclusion that only obsessives on the subject like myself will probably read them from cover to cover. Mao is a must read for historians of the period but it is not an easy read. The joy of a novel is that it is accessible to anyone. Readers don’t need to know anything about China to become engaged with Little winter’s story. But I did want the background history to be accurate as far as any history can be. I am indebted to Dr Maria Jaschok,the Director of International Gender Studies for her wonderful endorsement which has been used as a foreword to my novel.
    I do recommend the Stars period as a subject for a thesis or book by art students and academics but a I need to leave China and concentrate on India for my Anglo Indian novel. I didn’t feel that The Well Traveled Chest of Drawers was in a publishable state but Claret Press believe it has potential so my mind will move west across the Himalayas to a country where I have many relations thanks to my Indian born husband.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *