Somehow, over the last millennium-plus, the life story of Wu Daozi (689-759), possibly China’s greatest painter, went mostly missing. Chinese American author Lenore Look (best known for her entertaining double series about growing up bicultural, Alvin Ho and Ruby Lu), together with British Asian illustrator Meilo So, whimsically reimagine the artist in this splendid new title that echoes Wu’s greatest accomplishment: “He introduced the concept of depicting movement in figures and their clothing,” Look explains in her “Author’s Note.” So’s flowing watercolored lines make sure that “[h]is figures’ scarves billowed, their robes swum, and their hair blew in the wind.”
What begins as calligraphy lessons quickly becomes much more for the precocious young boy: “Each day something new and surprising dripped out of Daozi’s brush.” His drawings move from paper to “walls everywhere,” amazing all passers-by. Admirers willingly pay him, feed him … gifts he shares excitedly with the poor.
As the years pass, his paintings become so powerful as to fly, flutter, gallop off his brush. The monks accuse him of boasting and his admirers vanish. Yet the children continue to marvel and believe until the crowds once again multiply to such numbers that even the emperor requests “a grand masterpiece” on an entire palace wall, giving Wu “the greatest honor [he] could imagine.”
“Legend has it that Wu Daozi never died – he merely walked into his final painting … and disappeared,” Look adds at title’s end. That work – along with some 300 frescoes – didn’t survive. Piecing together references to Wu from poems and essays written by his contemporaries, Look and So create their own legend here … providing lavish inspiration for a new generation of artists to imagine and dream.