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Collection Updates

The Restoration of Yuan Yun-sheng's mural cycle Ancient Chinese Tales – Blue + Red + Yellow = White?


Tufts Associate Registrar John Rossetti and conservator Elizabeth Lehto Fulton discuss the condition of one panel

In 1983 Chinese artist Yuan Yun-sheng created the six-panel mural cycle Ancient Chinese Tales – Blue + Red + Yellow = White? for the Wessell Library at Tufts. The mural was created for the library's Reserve Room, spanning one wall with five large panels and one smaller panel over a doorway.  When library renovations began in 1984, Yuan's mural was put into storage.  The Tisch Library opened 1996 and, due to space constraints, only two sections of the mural were hung, the final panel of the cycle and the small panel that originally hung above the doorway.  After over fifteen years in storage, Tufts University is pleased to announce that Yuan Yun-sheng's entire mural now hangs again in the main University Library.  The summer 2011 restoration and reinstallation of Two Ancient Chinese Tales has been made possible by the Aidekman Family Fund, thanks to the generosity of Shirley Aidekman-Kaye and her son Kenneth A. Aidekman (A75), who are keenly interested in helping to make objects in the Tufts Permanent Art Collection more accessible to the University community.

Ancient Chinese Tales – Blue + Red + Yellow = White? presents an epic cycle using a bold, calligraphic style, bright colors, and rhythmic compositions.  It is, at once, a personal story, a reinterpretation of Chinese fables, and a history of his country.  The creation of a mural, a format that Yuan was familiar with through his commission for the Beijing Airport, allowed Yuan to connect the work to the Chinese past while retaining a sense of individualism.   The mural format references the historical tradition of wall painting in China, yet offers greater opportunity for experimentation with new, individualized forms of artistic expression than other traditional Chinese arts.  Yuan's work also engages in a dialogue with well-known Mexican murals by artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros.  At the same time, the scale distinguishes it from the predominant easel-sized canvas painting associated with Western art.   The mural format allows Yuan to create art that is unique and personal, that can engage with established artistic traditions while permitting the freedom to depart from prescribed artistic conventions.

The first panel of Ancient Chinese Tales depicts the mythological water god/buffalo demon Kung Kung destroying the pillar separating heaven and earth that results in cataclysmic destruction. The artist has stated, "Chairman Mao used Kung Kung as a symbol of revolution.  I use [it] as a destructive force."  The next scene shows the large, sweeping figure of Nu Wa.  This female deity mends the sky with a magical, multi-colored tether and recreates humankind, repairing the damage caused by Kung Kung.  To the right of Nu Wu, a "golden boy" flies toward utopia, pulled by a kite.   The final scene of the mural cycle depicts utopia as a lively celebration of hybrid creatures in which, according Yuan, "A horse doesn't know whether he's a horse or a human being [and a] human being doesn't know whether he's a horse or a human being."

The mural cycle now hangs in the main stairwell of the Tisch Library.  Due to its monumental size and space constraints, the cycle has been installed from the bottom level to the top of the stairwell. The first four panels of the cycle appear on the first floor of the library at the base of the main stairwell; the first two panels, showing the state of destruction triggered by Kung Kung, appear together on the east wall and the third and fourth panels, showing the rebuilding of the world through Nu Wa and the golden boy, appear on the west wall.  The fifth, smaller panel, originally conceived to hang above a doorway in the Wessell Library, features a fragment of sky and the rope of the kite, which leads the golden boy to Utopia.  This panel will continue to be displayed in its current location in the hallway leading to the Tower Café, just before the main stairwell.  The final, utopian scene remains in its current location on a wall in the stairwell, positioned at the pinnacle of the four large panels and reflecting the aspirations of Yuan and the ultimate message of optimism presented in the mural. 

ARTIST'S BIOGRAPHY

An outspoken and unconventional artist, Yuan's career was greatly affected by the volatile political climate in Maoist China, both before and during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. Born in 1937 in Nantong, China, Yuan began to study painting in 1955 at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.  At this time artistic freedom was limited and a Social Realist style of painting was promoted in favor of an individualized approach to art.  Yuan eschewed the methodology that was taught at the Academy, drawing instead on the Post-Impressionist painting style of European artists.  During a brief period of time in 1956-7, known as the "Hundred Flowers period," political and cultural freedom was granted in China; artists and intellectuals were encouraged to voice new ideas and openly criticize Chinese policy and culture.  This era came to an abrupt end in 1957 with the Anti-Rightist Campaign and those who were outspoken during the Hundred Flowers period were branded as Rightists.  Many artists who had expressed dissent, including Yuan, were sent to labor camps.  Yuan, however, was able to return to the Academy after two years, and graduated in 1963.

Yuan's unique approach to painting fused eastern and western artistic influences with a style that featured elongated, expressive, nude figures. His art remained controversial as his unorthodox style departed from the Social Realism that was supported by the government.  His graduation from the Academy was followed by sixteen years of artistic exile in northeast China.  Yuan was sent to a remote town of Changchun and given a position at the workers' cultural palace, where his duties included teaching recreational art classes.

After political conditions in China changed, largely as the result of Mao Zedong's death in 1976, Yuan was appointed Associate Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.  One of his most famous works is a large mural for the Beijing Airport, Water Festival – Song of Life (1979), which was subsequently censored by the government, ostensibly for its depiction of nude figures.  By the early 1980s he traveled to America, where he was able to study Abstract Expressionist paintings first-hand.  According to Joan Lebold Cohen, Yuan's artistic style matured at this point as he successfully fused the expressionistic and linear elements of his early work.   In America, Yuan visited many universities, including Tufts.  Dean Elizabeth Ahn Toupin invited Yuan to create this mural cycle on site in the Wessel Library and sponsored the artist's residency on campus during the 1982-1983 academic year.