Girl in a red scarf
In front of my eyes, a lovely young lady stands. Her body, slender and long, is lightly complected. Long eyelashes highlight her blue eyes and give way to cheeks that glow a hint of rose from within, like the translucence of jade. She is one of my most reliable models, assisting often during the early days of getting our group figure drawing sessions off the ground. Her enthusiasm and easy going nature helped me relax as I moderated the sessions; everything ran more smoothly when she was there.
Today, however, is a private session. Instead of going through a routine of timed poses, she can improvise, using whatever props she likes. I sit to the side, observing, hoping that the right pose at a good angle will stir my thoughts and put me to work.
I stare at this young woman in red and my heart begins to race - a nerve struck. The shock of this moment startles me! My mind races, “Ah! Red scarf!”
My spirit soars in this instant - awakened, raging within - like a bull seeing red! Why? What has come over me? She is simply an attractive young woman that would look good in just about any prop and in any color she might choose. No, it is the scarf, the red scarf, that suddenly sparks an almost uncontainable excitement burning deep in my innermost being. In this moment I am carried to a completely different time and place - to a time when I proudly wore my own red scarf about my neck.
It was 1970, at the height of the Cultural Revolution (which had begun in 1966). Like many other young pupils studying in elementary schools throughout China, I daily displayed my allegiance to our Great Leader by donning my red scarf around my neck, proudly being called one of Mao’s Little Red Guards. Yet, unbeknownst to us, we were all mercilessly being thrown into an historical and unprecedented revolution inducing within us all, young and old, a rebellion against any influence of the west, any of our old traditions, anything at all contradicting Mao’s ideology. Books were burned; learning was disrupted; red banners and red flags boldly flew. Young and old, we all learned to speak the politically correct words and to sing the countless songs of revolution. The Book that became my prized possession and that I so earnestly memorized was Mao’s Little Red Book.
Human nature was under attack. The concept of beauty, any endeavors to pursue beauty - even the word itself - was regarded as bourgeois. (“Bourgeois” was one of my early English spelling words!) Any art that focused on the human body was deemed as obscene and counterrevolutionary, making it a crime. Even for young girls at the time, wearing long braids and hair ribbons, or skirts, or white shoes - all was regarded as degenerate, bourgeois behavior, and there would be consequences. Many of them went lengths to change their names so as to have no association with the notion of beauty, and instead opted for revolutionary names, often including the word “hong” 红 -- red.
It was in that world of madness that I grew up and spent my childhood and adolescence. I went on to become a Red Guard in middle school wearing a red band around my arm, and then a member of the Communist Youth League, red pin on my chest, when I entered high school - full of hope and faith in Chairman Mao.
The nation continued to believe, to march, to suppress...until the day Mao died in 1976. Ten years had passed, and with the passing of the leader, the great revolution had run its course, unavoidably drawing to its end. Things slowly started to change. Signs were appearing everywhere. The population collectively seemed to begin to breathe again.
After school on one spring day in 1979, I went to my best friend’s home, as I often did. We were 16 at the time. It was just the two of us. He quietly pulled out a magazine (连环画报） that had been buried under a pile of textbooks and handed it to me. “Look inside the back cover,” he quietly directed. I followed, and the shock that ensued and unbelief at what I saw before my eyes stays with me to this day. There, inside the back cover I saw a painting of a completely nude young lady in a standing position, with her arms gracefully holding a jar of water pouring down from over her shoulder. The painting, known as “The Spring,” was painted by the great French artist, Ingres. Alone together, voices a whisper, my friend and I looked and looked; not without apprehension - that feeling that we were committing treacherous crimes against all we were taught from that tender age when we both wore a red scarf. What a rude awakening! I could almost say that my entire belief system collapsed at that moment in front of this undressed girl, captured by a master, inside the back cover of an art magazine. Is a picture really worth a thousand words? In this case, I would say it’s worth so much more.
This frenzied detour of my mind is unknown to the beautiful, young model standing in front of me with her red scarf so simply tied about her head. But at this moment, she is the epitome of beauty to me, just as the young girl was to Ingres as he undertook his painting “The Spring.” Except now, she is not merely a print obscured in the pages of a magazine, but a noble creation of flesh and blood. And me? I am finally free of that haunting sense of being engaged in a criminal act.
I steady myself and determine to paint in red, the color of my youth. I get underway with creating a series of paintings of the girl in a red scarf.