Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta, Claret Press www.claretpress.com 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.
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?