Image of the day: Carl Van Vechten’s 1935 portrait of Mai-mai Sze (above), the subject poised against a backdrop of concentric squares, the wavy, undulating shapes seeming to emanate in a dance of geometric distortion from her head …
Sze, or 施美美, as her Chinese name goes, was the daughter of one of Republican China’s most important political dynasties. She was born to Alfred S.K. Sze, who represented the fledgling republic at the League of Nations and the Court of St. James; he later became the country’s first ambassador to the U.S.A. (According to his Wiki entry, he was also the first Chinese student to graduate from Cornell.) Mai-mai’s maternal uncle was Tang Shaoyi, the first Prime Minister – albeit briefly – of post-Qing China.
Sze was a woman of many talents, it seems. Painter, writer, activist, sometime Broadway actress. However, to me, at least, the name is recognizable primarily for her translation of the famous Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual, or 芥子園畫傳 – still the version most commonly used today. Art lovers may also be interested in this little factoid: her grand-niece is American artist Sarah Sze, who has a solo show on right now at the Asia Society in New York, Infinite Line.
Ms. Mai-mai was a little-known pioneer in one other respect: long before the era of the equality movement and identity politics, she was a gay woman of colour. (Born in Peking, she was educated at Wellesley, and lived out her life in the U.S.) Her longtime companion was costume designer and 5-time Oscar recipient, Irene Sharaff, who was honoured for her work on cinematic classics such as The King and I, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and West Side Story. Late in life, the couple donated money towards the building of the Music and Meditation Pavilion of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University, on the grounds of which they are buried today.
Daughter, niece, aunt, lover – and seldom the star of her own life. Yet it’s clear that Mai-mai Sze was an individual possessed of intellect and creativity, a fact which Van Vechten’s image of her alludes to in wittily elegant fashion.
The photograph is in the collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library.
Below is another striking portrait of Sze, this one by George Platt Lynes. Dressed in a slender, streamlined sliver of silken fabric from Fortuny, balanced between a blank expanse of wall and an abstract object, she resembles nothing so much as a Brancusi sculpture.