December, 2014 — In 1982, Chinese artist Yuan Yun-sheng (b. 1937, Nantong) was invited to Tufts as an artist-in-residence, where he created this six-panel mural cycle Two Ancient Chinese Tales – Blue + Red + Yellow = White? for the Wessell Library during the 1982–1983 academic year. Two Ancient Chinese Tales presents an epic cycle that is at once a personal story, a reinterpretation of Chinese fables, and a history of the artist’s country, using bold, calligraphic brushwork, bright colors, and rhythmic compositions.
Yuan chose to use the same large-scale narrative format as the commissioned mural that he painted for the Beijing Airport in the 1970s. This format references the tradition of wall painting in China and allows for more individualized forms of expression than other traditional Chinese arts. Yuan’s unique approach to painting fuses eastern and western artistic influences and elongated, expressive, nude figures. Yuan’s art remained controversial within China through the 20th century, as his unorthodox style departed from the Social Realism supported by the Chinese government.
The first two panels of Two Ancient Chinese Tales, on the first level to the left of the Tisch Library’s main stairs, depict the mythological water god/buffalo demon Kung Kung destroying the pillar separating heaven and earth, which results in cataclysmic destruction. The artist has said that “Chairman Mao used Kung Kung as a symbol of revolution. I use [it] as a destructive force.” The next two panels, to the right of the stairs, show the large, sweeping figure of Nu Wu and a “golden boy” flying toward Utopia pulled by a kite. Nu Wu is a female deity who mends the sky with a magical, multi-colored tether and recreates humankind, repairing the damage caused by Kung Kung. The final scene of the mural cycle, above the stairwell landing, depicts Utopia as a lively celebration of hybrid creatures.
Created for the Wessell Library’s Reserve Room, the mural spanned one wall, with five large panels and one smaller panel over a doorway. When library renovations began in 1994, Yuan’s mural was put into storage. Only two sections of the mural were hung when the Tisch Library opened in 1996. After more than 15 years in storage, the entire mural was reinstalled in June 2011. Its restoration and reinstallation have been made possible by the Aidekman Family
Fund, thanks to the generosity of Shirley Aidekman-Kaye and her son Kenneth A. Aidekman (A76) who are keenly interested in helping to make objects in the Tufts Permanent Art Collection more accessible to the University community.
—Amy Ingrid Schlegel, Director of Galleries and Collections, with Laura Conover (M.A. 2012, Art History)