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From what I’ve been posting you may get the impression that modern Chinese painting is still mostly about ink and paper. Of course that would be a misconception. Chinese artists have been influenced by Western painting since at least 18th century, when a Jesuit by the name of Giuseppe Castiglione served as a court painter to a Chinese emperor. Today the painting crowd divides themselves into two schools – one following the traditional techniques, the other one subscribing to the Western style. Of course this doesn’t mean they don’t have any impact on each other and sometimes it’s very interesting to see how one style evolves thanks to the influence of the other. Today I want to present to you a painter who was one of the landmarks of Western oil painting in China, and a person with a very unique history too.

Pan Yuliang was born in 1899 in the Anhui Province. Her parents orphaned her when she was a child and at the age of 14 she was sold by her uncle to a brothel, where she grew up to be a prostitute. One of her customers was Pan Zanhua, a customs officer, who eventually bought her out. She became his second wife and took on his last name. They moved to Shanghai, where she passed the exams to the Shanghai Art School in 1918. After her graduation, Pan Zanhua sponsored her further studies in Paris and Lyon. She also obtained a scholarship to study painting at the Roman Royal Art Academy in Italy. In 1929, having gained some recognition in Europe, she was invited to teach painting in Shanghai and Nanjing. She received a lot of acclamation as the first Chinese woman to paint in Western Style. Despite her success, she was also severely criticised by some conservatives and government officials – not least because a lot of her portraits were nude. In 1937 she decided to move to Paris, where she became a member of the faculty at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the chairman of the Chinese Art Association. She died in 1977.

I had the good luck to see an exhibition of her works at the Zhejiang Museum of fine arts and I was struck not only by the sheer force of her paintings, but also by some reflections they inspired.

For example: look closely at the painting below. The title is “A legend”. What exactly does it depict?

After the initial lack of response (this isn’t her best work, in my humble opinion), you suddenly discover it fits exactly into the old tradition of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (for comparison, check out Hieronymus Bosch!). A Western religious theme filtered through Chinese eyes – let me tell you, one doesn’t see it too often. The one below, on the other hand, seems to evoke Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass”. Unlike Manet, Pan decided to paint her females in clothes here. The point of interest she introduces instead is the mixed group of friends – both European and Chinese. The next painting is entitled “Friendly Heads”. Works like these, especially painted in the 20’s or 30’s, when racism was still rampant, seem to me very unique, especially in their simplicity of approach. They don’t rant – they present the world as it should be.

The ones above, with Chinese models, seem to me to be painted very differently than the ones below. The technique is different, more sketch-like and “flat”, with clear outlines, more delicate colours and a more decorative, less realistic background. The shapes themselves also seem more flowing and whimsical. Can it be an unconscious influence of the Chinese “xieyi” (writing ideas, impressions) versus “xiezhen” (writing reality) idea? Compared to them, the two paintings below, with a white and a black woman, are very “Western” and very realistic. Why is it? I tried to find the dates – maybe it’s just that Pan’s style evolved over time – but I couldn’t.

Seeing the two paintings below was somehow a surprise, even though at first I didn’t know why I felt this way. Then I realised that most (in fact, all) of the nudes I’ve seen were painted by men. Not just that, but they were mostly painted by Western men. When they presented Asian women, it would be from a very specific perspective – as in Ingres’s “Turkish Bath” – the women would be presented as sensual courtesans and mysterious geishas, there to satisfy a Western man’s fantasies of Orient. Here we have a reversal of this situation: European and African women presented not only by another woman, but by an Asian woman. They – especially the African model – are here not only to have their bodies admired and desired, they’re not passively submitting themselves to the viewer (as in, let’s say, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”, to name but one). They are not just nudes, but also portraits, with the character clearly visible on their faces, and their bodies real and not perfect. Pan was equally honest with her own self-portraits, some of which were nude or partly nude.

The subject of the last painting must have been especially close to her heart, since she painted many different versions of it. I personally love it: it’s simple, sweet and charming, and the nakedness seems natural and innocent.

All in all, I’m sure you’ve noticed, I was very much impressed by this exhibition. I hope you like Pan’s works too, and if you’re interested in her extraordinary life, there’s a movie about it, starring Gong Li (you will have known her from such films as “Raise the Red Lanterns”, “Red Sorghum” and… oh yes, “The Memoirs of a Geisha” where she plays the nasty one). The title is “The Soul Haunted By Painting”. Haven’t seen it yet, but I’m going to – and that despite the fact I actually dislike Gong Li!