Sometime in 1945, Salvador Dalí paid a visit to the Barnes Foundation, then located on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and stood transfixed in front of a painting by Henri Matisse called Madras Rouge. Alfred Barnes was immensely proud of this acquisition and was keen to show it to Dalí. But Dalí wasn’t looking at the Madras, our docent told us. Instead, he was staring at the piece hanging above it, a very small and relatively unknown painting by the underappreciated twentieth-century French painter Jean Hugo called The Beginning of the End of the World. Something about it had set Dalí on fire.
My father was with me at the time. “Dalí,” he said, “was a real genius. He could see beneath paintings. Beneath the paint.” But my father wasn’t talking about The Beginning of the End of the World. He was referring to something else.
This is a story about art history that begins in another place. In 1988, exactly a year before the Tiananmen Square massacres, six American women artists from different parts of the United States had responded separately to an advertisement in a crafting magazine for an artistic tour of China. That same year the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo had left the United States to return to the nationwide student demonstrations in China, forfeiting a visiting scholarship at Columbia University that would certainly have led to a charmed and well-appointed life. He was incarcerated shortly thereafter and lived exactly long enough to see that the period from the 1990s to the early 2000s that people regarded as a run-up to a reform was actually only the briefest of respites. All those years of thinking that societal reconfigurations in China prefigured a more perfect political reform was simply the amount of time it took for the machinery of propaganda and censorship to wait out living memory, and for those who knew better to die.
I have always tried to connect our family history to the events that transpired in China in 1989, to make use of that grander backdrop, but this is in some sense deeply fraudulent. My parents participated marginally in the student uprisings, and I was only three at the time. When Liu Xiaobo was coming back, we were leaving. After the massacres not just in Beijing but all over China, most of the foreigners who had planned trips to China changed their minds. These six women happened to be stubborn and wilful; they refused to cancel their flights and so arrived in China later that summer and, by pure blind luck, met my family. They were assigned by the foreign relations office to the dormitory in Hangzhou College (since then incorporated into Zhejiang University), where they struggled with breakfasts, bicycles, and the communal bathrooms. They desperately needed a translator, and my father was summoned, despite having multiple citations for his “thought problems,” because the officials couldn’t find anyone else who spoke English so fluently.
Sometimes you are shown something, and it goes right to your heart like poison. It was like this with my father and art history, and with the women and my father. My father could see things and then get you to see them, too—the thereness of it unthinkable a moment before but unmistakable once he’d walked you through it. They asked him about paintings and, realizing that he had a knack for art criticism, encouraged him to come study art history in the United States, where they’d pay for his tuition, basic necessities, and the cost of travel for his wife and daughter. He took them up on their offer with the special exhilaration that comes from being chosen for talents that are almost invisible on the outside. He would spend the next thirty years studying paintings he had never seen except in a few poor reproductions—by Gainsborough, Constable, Joseph Wright of Derby, Claude Lorraine—and writing a book he eventually had to self-publish on English landscapes. He was the kind of person in whom one could see all of this, all at once, which moved them—this, and the fact that he was an unnaturally handsome man.
During their brief stay in Hangzhou, these women brought their cameras and notebooks everywhere. They were people for whom nothing was ever too much trouble—writing everything down, making duplicates so that everyone could have a copy. Everything they looked at seemed lit up from within. Packages started arriving after they left consisting of long letters in a script that I later learned was called English roundhand, written surely with the knowledge that none of us would be able to read them, as well as soaps, tins, and little Christmas ornaments; for me, brightly colored mechanical pens and pencils with tiny, hidden compartments and stationery smelling of gardenias, pop-up books about birds and wildlife, and, the oddest thing to us that the time, photographs of us, of me, looking at things, thinking about them. After that, for a while, I had good photographs taken by my father, who adopted their policy that nothing in the world is not worth the effort. For a long time, I made the mistake of thinking that unhappiness was the most profound thing one could recall of one’s childhood. Then a colleague pointed out that my face in these pictures was a face turned to something that greatly loved it.
Almost every one of these women is dead now. That is why I find myself in art museums a lot these days, hoping to come across someone who reminds me of them.
No, the painting of which my father was speaking, the one that could demonstrate the uncanny power of Dalí’s vision, was an-other one from an earlier time. A year after my mother and I arrived, greatly disoriented, in Cincinnati, Ohio, my father, to help us afford things she insisted on having but he didn’t think we needed (such as my not having to use the subsidized lunch ticket at school), took a job in the biology department looking after the laboratory cockroaches. He did his studies under a small lamp, surrounded ﬂoor to ceiling by cockroach tanks. He snuck a portable burner and a cot into the lab, and on the weekends he lived there, warming noodles on his burner and napping to the sound of the cockroaches.
In this memory my father is taking out yesterday’s cardboard tubes and replacing them with clean ones, careful not to let the roaches file up the tubes and drop over the sides of the tanks. I am leaning on him in the dark, patting the paisley patterns on his arm.
He is showing me a painting in a book of a man and a woman, peasants, praying over a basket. Under the lamp, the man, the woman, the stubble, and the empty sky behind them all appeared blue, like the side of a cockroach tank.
“This painting is called The Angelus,” he said, putting the accent on the second syllable. “By Millet,” accent on the first.
“Why do you think they’re praying?”
I studied the painting very hard.
“Do you know that years later, when museum curators X-rayed the painting, they discovered another version underneath, one that Millet had painted over. There—” he moved my finger to the basket and tapped it three times. “Nannan. There was something else in that basket.”
The contents of the basket looked like the basket itself, the basket looked like the peasants’ clothes (clo-this, my father would say), and the peasants’ clothes looked like the blighted field behind them.
“What was there?” I moved closer, and he laughed at having gotten me so easily.
“What was there, baba?”
My father couldn’t help it, setting the preference like this, shifting the gears into alignment. He taught me things that got people to like art history right away, that made them feel clever about looking closely, such as how Velázquez painted himself into Las Meninas, and how van Eyck painted himself into The Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife. None of it was very sophisticated as far as art criticism goes, but it wasn’t something I could ever turn away from, even now: what paintings showed you was how to see things buried in plain sight.
One afternoon in a summer years later when he came to see me he had beckoned to me: “Do you want to see something funny?” I was working on math problems in the mainland Chinese middle school mathematics textbook because my mother had insisted on supplementing the school’s text. I had spent entire afternoons on two trains. Two trains were traveling at different velocities toward each other, and the question was when they would crash into one another. Then the same two trains were now traveling in the same direction, and the question was at what point one would overtake the other. My mother had also purchased the companion textbooks for the language arts, but they were worthless, platitudes paired with fake historical anecdotes. She knew it. All the frightening stuff was in the math primers. Take this one for example; I’ll never forget it: Two rabbits lived in a yard of a certain size and they procreated; the kits ate the grass in the yard at a certain rate, and they procreated; the older generation died off, and the kits of the kits procreated; 80 percent of the grass returned every spring. The question was: What is the metric area of the grass left in the yard by the time we get to generation number five? I was working on such a problem of diminishing margins when my father lured me with the promise that something in the art history book he was reading might be funny.
There they are—his water-lit eyes, his hands smelling faintly of Alclometasone, which he had to apply every day because of his skin condition. He was embarrassed to have his hands on the pages of his Janson and Janson and so always flipped the pages quickly. Because of his condition he also had to soak this hands in a vinegar solution every night. “Like Marat,” he used to say, “but no one wants to kill me, I think.” He had shown me the painting by Jacques-Louis David, the compactness of the wooden tub in which Marat bled out. He told me it was a visual pun. Bathed in blood.
“Should he not have been killed?” I had asked him.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that.”
THE PAINTING HE WANTED TO SHOW ME was by Thomas Gainsborough: a young girl sits resting her cheek in her hand, and beside her three pigs lap milk from a saucer. Behind them is a copse of trees and a glen and a twisted oak, all of which are beautifully painted but unconvincing as background. It looks like the child and the pigs are sitting in front of a painting in a studio.
“Are those pigs??” I knew they were pigs. I just didn’t know whether that was supposed to be the funny thing.
“They’re like pigs,” he corrected me, and then laughed. “Someone who saw this painting once said, “‘They be deadly like pigs.’”
I could play this game. “And the girl. Is she only like a girl?”
“No of course not,” he corrected me again. “She’s a real girl, what do you think? Well, look at her clothes”—three taps—“Look at her feet: like little pig feet.” My father touched my cheek. “I think she looks like you,” he said, which was kind of an absurd thing to say. I had no context by which to judge her clothes, or her unshod feet, but I could not possibly be this pink. In tone and texture she was like the three pigs.
I asked what the girl was doing in the painting.
“Like you just now, she’s thinking, like any philosopher, or Greek king.”
“It’s just thought that’s being represented, that’s all. The time, given to her.”
“And the pigs?”
“Well, they’re very cute, aren’t they? They’re something a child would be given to look after, so it’s fitting.” And then he said something I didn’t understand. “But you know I looked after pigs as a child. These pigs were painted in to show that an exception has been made.”
While my father was in the States studying the history of Western landscape painting, my mother and I fared poorly in China. When we finally joined him, our difficulties continued. My mother babysat for a child whose selfishness was something I’d never seen before. She worked at Chinese restaurants, and men wrote dirty things to her on the receipts. She cleaned. She sewed. After my father left her, effectively discontinuing our F2 status, we lived as the undocumented do. In the early 2000s, years after my parents had divorced, my father called to ask me to tell my mother that he had decided to return to China to teach art history because he thought things might be getting more progressive over there. My mother walked out of the room. She had paid dearly for an exception that undid itself.
I remember a day in springtime. I was in fourth or fifth grade. One of the women who had gone to China and sponsored our family, the one I loved best, was driving me out to the Brandywine River Museum to see the Wyeths. The scenery along the drive was already like a painting, the green on the hills moving under the shadows of clouds. Every other weekend she would pick me up from a dark and dirty townhouse in South Philly in her Ford, which she called Baby, and every time I’d be so filled with gratitude, be so unspeakably happy, that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about my life. I was afraid she would stop coming. But the truth of it was that there was something wrong with my mother. She became caught on the everyday the way clothes caught on nails. Sometimes the fridge was filled with food, and then for weeks there’d be nothing but wilted scallions and a box of MSG. When I’d come home from our benefactors with new layers of aesthetic sense and English words like dooryard and trivet and Fels Naptha, she’d treat me with such absurd rage that I began to doubt the things happening before my eyes. With immigrant parents, the road to explanation is paved with clichés, stereotypes, and the ab ovo of historical circumstance. If I had tried to tell my godmother—this is what I called her—it would’ve been wrong. Even now, it’s not quite right to speak out. But I’ll start with circumstance since that’s the least wrong.
When these six women came to China in 1989 and decided, Great Expectations–like, to act as benefactors to my father, they tore a little hole in the fabric of representation. People like my parents ought never to have survived. After all, Chinese intellectuals who had not escaped to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, or the United States before the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 simply ceased to be. Across the country, those who informed on their teachers and professors became principals, educational ministers, university party secretaries, and prompt writers and readers for the national college examination essay. With only a few exceptions, the children of “counterrevolutionaries” and political prisoners were barred from the top universities and then, later, from all the avenues of backchanneling that allowed people to get into schools, publish things, get promoted. The intellectuals who survived had to watch these things, as well as the cooptation of language and art by propaganda, and adjust.
During his four years in a reeducation camp, my maternal grandfather enacted the inverse of “Shawshank Redemption” by having people smuggle carving stones in to him, just to have something artistic to do. In a hundred different scripts he carved the character for “longevity,” shoù, which is homophonic with the character for “suffering.” He was discovered by the guards, who figured that people who were this bored probably suffered from gratuitous digits. After the amputations, my grandfather adjusted, moving on to every single poem Mao had ever written, two characters per chop.
After the days of seizures and raids across Hangzhou in 1966 my mother and her brothers were “sent down for reeducation in the countryside.” At first she was sent to Wuhu, a poor but hospitable part of the country, where she was assigned the task of making subtitle banners for the propaganda operas because she wrote such a beautiful hand—the calligraphy of an incorruptible person. Then something happened, and my mother was dispatched to the Lesser Khingan Mountains in the far north, where she spent the next three years disinterring bodies to clear cemetery land for building compounds. It’s almost funny to say it: “When I was a teenager I spent years disinterring bodies! hahaha.” Then as an adult you try to walk through a stretch of woods alone at dusk and remember the wolves.
My father was sent down as well. If you go to the county of Jin Yun in Zhejiang Province you can find a dozen old camphor tree stumps, each large enough for a whole opera troupe to perform on. These were the handiwork of their work unit. But even then, given orders to lay things to waste for no other reason than that they were beautiful and took time, he was gathering followers to the cult of sight. I know it. It was effortless for my father to be in the world in this way, just as when, as a teenager, he saw something shift in the river and then pulled a boy whose leg had cramped clean out of it. He also saw his mother marching off to reeducation committee meetings with a song in her heart and understood how precisely a revolution turned, that people couldn’t stop before taking their fullest satisfaction.
So you see, it should have been perfect, history’s sutured wound: the reformed revolutionaries’ son who saw that the whole thing had gone too far and the daughter of people who bore that mistake.
But the Cultural Revolution had calibrated a special kind of punishment for people like them. When I was young I went with the idiom of their love being stillborn, dead on arrival, but I see it more clearly now, the way the sky is revealed by a felled tree. An uncorrected historical wrong produces an unending night. They were utterly alone. When the American group arrived in Hangzhou in 1989 they gave the chance to take back what was lost to only one of them, which was deeply unfair, but I can understand it—the field was tilled, and the choice was obvious. The problem was that their beneficence also made the young couple take on a postdiluvian representativeness. There they were in Cincinnati, the oddest Chinese couple you could ever have met. The majority of Chinese people who had made it to the States had come to study medicine, computer engineering, and accounting, areas that belong to what is now called li ke: literally, “the field of reason.” The humanities were officially disconnected from “reason,” because, as the wisdom still goes, intelligent people studied math and sciences; the humanities were for those who couldn’t cut it. Chinese people who are truly good at critical thought almost never make it this far.
My parents had no coterie to turn to to speak the secret language, nothing to gather around themselves. Many of the people from their Chinese “circle” were from families who profited during the worst of the Mao years, going up and down the country as if on a field trip. At the very least, they were people who leaned into the curvature and simply became more like themselves. With enough censorship and few enough opposing voices, anything can seem like a painting you maybe once saw. For a while, my parents piteously identified with victims of Nazism, finding sustenance in stories about informants, interrogations, and senseless cruelty, trying to heal themselves vicariously through other people’s traumas. But the irony that eventually disabled this identification was that, with the Cultural Revolution, a few of a certain kind of Chinese people had survived to see that the greater majority had simply lived on. The party is still in power. Generations regenerate. Americans now come to China and take selfies with Mao paraphernalia. A colleague told me with conviction that the problem with communism was that it wasn’t pure enough.
I teach American literature for a living, and yet it was still only in combing over their story again and again, searching for an explanation—How could two people who survived a regime together and who held the same impossible ethical standards turn on each other with such terrible regret?—that I learned the importance of representational parity and critical mass; without these things, you’re propping up the world for the other by yourself. You alone have to make the exception possible.
The psychic fallout of the Cultural Revolution wasn’t the only thing that drove them apart, certainly. My father, instead of buying or putting up shelves, would put nails in the wall and hang plastic bags from them. You spent days researching how better to anchor a nail in the wall because half the things you owned were hanging in plastic bags. Your life gets worse and worse, my mother told me, because in his heart he’s still trying to get back to Mao’s wu chan ji jie: “complete dispossession.”
It wasn’t that he hadn’t suffered. He had. But their understandings of civilization were different even though it would seem that they should be the same. At night, in the shit place where we lived, just the two of us, my mother would weigh down the rice paper, grind the pigment stick, and prepare the brushes. The next day, when the night’s work had dried, she’d circle the few characters that were good with the pale inky water and then fold up the papers one by one. And then she’d dispose of all of them. In this, and in telling me about the Cultural Revolution, my mother was burying a silver needle—the kind that Chinese people used to test for poison—by which the trueness of things is privately ascertained. If the needle turns black you’re the only one the wiser. My father, in contrast, was all about the visible. You could put him inside any art museum, and he’d just stand in front of the paintings, his beautiful eyes widening, and everyone in the room would turn to him as iron filings to a magnet. For all the ways it outpaced hers intellectually, especially as the years went by, with more opportunity, more language, more training, and more time, his civilization program was much simpler. Its self-centeredness was easy to overlook. It was simply that what you see with your own eyes you cannot not see, and there must be a world in which this is possible.
The commonsense injunction to see what’s buried underneath is not an easy task because the language we have at hand for such searching bends the searching itself. So instead, let this painting be an ekphrasis of their lives.
Last year I was on leave, living in London. I went to the National Gallery almost every day, neglecting husband, children, work, and politics. I searched for the paintings my father analyzed only from reproductions, and I tried to see them as I think he might have seen them. He had called me to tell me that he would have loved to come, but that, as usual, he would not be able make it. Professors were being forced to complete self-assessments, and sit on committees on self-assessments. He was prohibited from teaching from Janson and Janson and saying anything that marked Western art as an exceptional category. Obsequiously implementing Xi Jinping’s “seven never-mentions,” universities have recommended that professors use state-sanctioned histories of Western art that “decenter European and American exceptionalism and imperialism” and emphasize the virtues of national traditions. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to see the truth of things: some things are deadly like what they purport to be, and you can’t tell if the backdrop has been swapped out with a fake.
I am imagining that he’s right next to me, as he was years ago at the Barnes, in an outing that I had had to engineer. It had been years since I’d seen him.
After our docent, who reminded me so much of people long gone, had left, my father said to me, “There’s a painting by Millet, peasants, a young couple in prayer standing over a basket. It’s one where you think, You see one, you’ve seen them all.” He was not explaining things to me, but merely trying to light up something from within.
We are walking together very slowly from salon to salon as if there were no years. In one room, a portrait Renoir did of a little girl he barely knew. In the adjacent salon, one he did of a little girl he loved very well. Side by side you would not miss the difference.
“Dalí took one look at that painting and he said, ‘No no no. It’s about death. This young man and this young woman—they’re not praying for a harvest. Life’s not starting but ending. They’re praying over a corpse.’”
“Really?” I had forgotten that he had already told this to me. He had forgotten as well.
“When they later X-rayed the painting, art historians found that Millet had painted over something. In the basket was a dead infant. And the young couple: they were preparing to bury it. Millet probably decided such a painting would never sell.”
My father turns to look at me. “But, Nannan, how did Dalí know? How could he possibly have known?”