Mu Xin Art Museum Grand Opening Showcases ‘Prison Notes’ and Intricate Landscapes

He produced much of his work in secretive conditions.

A back view of the Mu Xin Art Museum.
Image: Jing Daily.

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The late artist, writer, and poet Mu Xin was once jailed by Chinese authorities for his role as an intellectual, but he’s now being celebrated in China with the opening of a new museum dedicated solely to his life’s work.

The new Mu Xin Art Museum held its grand opening on November 15 in the artist’s hometown of Wuzhen, a 1,300-year-old canal town an hour outside Shanghai that now attracts large numbers of tourists thanks to its preserved traditional architecture. With a structure designed by U.S. firm OLI Architecture and inspired by Mu Xin’s work, the new museum is overseen by founding director and artist Chen Danqing, who studied with Mu Xin in New York.

The 72,118-square-foot structure was designed by OLI’s founders Bing Lin and Hiroshi Okamoto (who has worked on projects with I.M. Pei), with interior design by Fabian Servagnat. With eight galleries, the building is composed of a series of floating rooms that are intended to reflect the creation of space in the landscape paintings for which Mu Xin is known. The architects chose concrete for the exterior, with a pattern meant to imitate Mu Xin’s ink brush in the watercolor landscapes.

While the setting of the new building at the edge of the town’s Yuanbao Lake appears tranquil, the tumultuous period of history Mu Xin lived through was anything but. Born in 1927 to a wealthy family, he studied at the Shanghai Fine Art School and pursued both painting and writing, eventually being named the president of the Hangzhou Painting Studies Society. But as an intellectual during the Cultural Revolution, his works were destroyed by the authorities and he was imprisoned three times, including once in an air-raid shelter in solitary confinement from 1971 to 1972. He continued to produce work in secretive conditions, including his famous Prison Notes, and was eventually exonerated in 1979 and named the Secretary General of the China Arts and Crafts Association before moving to New York in 1982.

Now, his work is being celebrated by the state-owned Wuzhen Tourism Co., which sponsored the museum along with founder Chen Xianghong. Chen serves president of the public-private Culture Wuzhen Co. and is credited for restoring the architecture of Wuzhen and marketing it as a tourist attraction. The town eventually became Mu Xin’s home once again when he left America and returned in 2006. He resided there until he passed away in 2011, not long after work on the museum began.

“I think there was very much an influence from the aesthetics of his paintings and his artwork, and his character as well,” says Okamoto of the design of the museum, stating that the different areas of the building represent “episodes in his life as well as his creative endeavors. And we wanted the story to be formed by the experience—not necessarily by being didactic. We wanted someone to have a one-on-one relationship with Mu Xin’s art and with Mu Xin’s writing, and to have their own interpretation. I think that happens already with his writings as well as his paintings.”

An outdoor installation modeled after Mu Xin’s landscape paintings. Image: Jing Daily.

An outdoor installation modeled after Mu Xin’s landscape paintings.
Image: Courtesy of Jing Daily.

The new property joins a wave of new museums designed by top international architects opening across China, not only in first-tier cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but also in smaller cities and towns across the country. These include properties designed by major firms such as Steven Holl, MAD Architects, and Kengo Kuma in places such as Ningbo, Xinjin, Harbin, Hangzhou, and Nanjing. OLI Architecture, which has an office in Shanghai, has designed several other museums currently in progress in Suzhou and Chengdu.

The galleries at the Mu Xin Art Museum feature a combination of permanent and temporary exhibitions aimed at documenting the life and work of Mu Xin, as well as other artists’ and thinkers’ influence on his work. The exhibits feature around 100 paintings and 50 manuscripts that were created throughout his life, selected from more than 600 paintings and 1,000 manuscripts left by him. The first two temporary exhibits explore the impacts of Friedrich Nietzsche and Chinese artist Lin Fengmian on his writings and paintings, bringing Nietzsche’s manuscripts to China for the first time.

An exhibition of Mu Xin’s Prison Notes is one of the most compelling testaments to his dedication to producing work even in a time of great personal danger. Visitors to the museum can see a selection of the 66 pages of writings he created between 1971 and 1972 in tiny script on paper that was meant for writing “self-criticisms” during his imprisonment. He used the papers to secretly compose imagined dialogues between himself and famous thinkers and artists from both China and Europe—stuffing the pages in his mattress and smuggling them out of the prison when he was released.

After Mu Xin was released from prison, he continued to produce works in secret while under house arrest, where he composed 33 landscape paintings on pieces of paper that were small enough to keep hidden. The intricacy of the small scenes make the work “almost scale-less, in a sense,” says Okamoto, who notes that the gallery where they are now displayed is intentionally dark in order to create a more intimate viewing experience of the pieces.

Mu Xin held a great reverence for the Chinese landscape painting tradition, and believed that “Northern Song Chinese painting reached a peak that resembles the great achievement of symphonic music in the West,” says Toming Jun Liu, a professor in the Department of English at California State University who published a collection of English translations of Mu Xin’s Prison Notes. “His landscape painting has very naturally merged Eastern and Western modernist styles.”

Despite the warm reception that Mu Xin’s work now receives in China, it isn’t completely free from government censorship. A set of display cases in one gallery stood empty at the opening, after a series of works related to his writings about the Bible were not given official approval to be displayed. His works that did make the cut clearly show that his dedication to express himself against all odds was, according to the architects, a demonstration of “the unfettered expansion of the mind within real physical constraints.”

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