“It has been my dream since childhood to be an artist. I wanted to pursue perfection.”

Born Xiangfan, Hubei, 1966

Smiling coyly in their publicity shots, China’s old-time movie stars looked flawlessly beautiful. In Ma Yanling’s transcription, they are even more so: inspired by Andy Warhol’s images of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, the artist fades out all contours, reducing each lovely face to hair, mouth and eyes. (Ming xing, or superstar, originally meant “beautiful eyes”, the artist notes.) Over this glamour Ma Yanling casts a screen—not silver but grey, a meticulous net of fine brushstrokes in the 18 styles of traditional calligraphy, from “iron wire” to “rat tail” and “gossamer”. Each star-dimming shroud had its counterpart in the diva’s offscreen life. Silent-film actress Ruan Lingyu committed suicide in 1935 at the age of 25 after tattle about her love affairs was published in the press. For teenage star Wang Renmei, marriage spelled the end of her career; studios shunned her, and she played her last role in 1951. Hu Die lived in torment as the unwilling mistress of secret-police chief Dai Li, “the most feared man in China”. Jiang Qing, the last wife of Mao Zedong, persecuted fellow actors and artists during the Cultural Revolution, served time in prison, was felled by cancer, and finally hanged herself. Ma Yanling’s painted shrouds magnify each woman’s allure even as they hint at her suffering.

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