Stark and soft. Huge yet intimate. Victim, villain. Dry facts, bloody horror. These contrasts make seeing Xu Weixin: Monumental Portraits at the University of Michigan Museum of Art a skin-crawling, soul-deepening experience. It happens in layers.
Layer One: From afar, Xu’s oil portraits of nineteen people who lived in China from 1967 to 1977, the years of the repressive, violent Cultural Revolution, look like giant black-and-white graduation photos. All have blank backgrounds, are the same size, and focus just on these healthy faces, most of which are smiling. Some glow. A few are hauntingly sad.
Layer Two: Moving closer, I see Chinese characters filling the background or creating columns or even crossing faces. Some have English translations, too. The canvases’ immensity–each is about six-and-a-half feet wide and eight feet tall–starts to dawn on me. The eyes are bigger than my hands.
Layer Three: Curiosity hits. What do the writings say? Who are these people? Here comes the first skin-crawl:
I read the placards of a wife-and-husband pairing, “Bian Zhongyun and Wang Jingyao.” Bian’s bio starts factually: her birth year and place, schooling, her work as a teacher. It ends with a public accusation, humiliation, beatings, torture, death–then obvious lies about it. Wang’s also begins dryly, then centers on him bringing their four “sorrowful” children to view Bian’s body. It ends with his futile, decades-long fight to clear her name. Bian is classified as the first educator to die in the Cultural Revolution, one of 750,000 killed and thirty-six million persecuted.
Layer Four: I read more bios and realize they are all written plainly, without emotion, hyperbole, or judgment. While some give the person’s fate, others are just a list of accomplishments, which seems odd.
Layer Five: It occurs to me that those with just lists are “perpetrators.” Accusations go unstated. Then I see the portrait of “Mao Zedong,” the leader-chairman who ordered this revolution, and “Jiang Qing,” who was married to him. It’s curious that these two aren’t set apart from the others. In Mao’s bio, only the last sentence mentions his role in the Cultural Revolution.
Layer Six: Aha! These portraits are in alphabetical order. Victims and villains get equal treatment. I turn around to view them all. There’s no way to tell which is which.
Layer Seven: I step in to look closely at “Bao Pao,” attracted by the beautifully painted reflections on his eyeglasses, and there, in his lips and chin, is this glorious painterly brushwork, loose and lovely. A brush hair is left in the paint. Suddenly, I’m immensely curious about Xu. I want more. I want the exhibit book.
Layer Eight: I head out to buy the book but get sidelined by The Miners, another of Xu’s portrait series in the gallery’s center. In contrast to the smooth historical portraits, the miners’ faces are encrusted, rougher, loose, and in color. They’re striking, even stunning, but I tear away to the store.
Layers Nine and beyond: Exhibit book in hand, I learn why Xu treats each person equally–I’ll leave you to discover this “soul-deepening part”–and a thousand other facts about what a huge deal this exhibit is, the foremost being this is its first major showing in the U.S.
Go see it. It’s not just great art with an amazing treatment of history. It’s a lesson as we wrestle with our own country’s repressive-liberating revolution. The exhibit ends May 29.