BY Madeleine Thien in Features | 12 MAR 18
Featured in
Issue 194

From Republican-Era Shanghai to Postwar Paris: Pan Yuliang's Bold Portraits

Madeleine Thien takes a look at a celebrated painter who merged Western composition with Chinese brush-and-ink style

BY Madeleine Thien in Features | 12 MAR 18

In the 1931 oil on canvas My Family, Pan Yuliang poses at her easel with her face turned towards us. Her lover and his son, standing behind her, gaze rapt at the painting-within-the-painting, which is also My Family. Both men are clothed in blue-grey Zhongshan suits – later known as Mao suits – which, combining Chinese and Western fashions, came to prominence after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912. The pockets of the Zhongshan suit are said to represent the four classical Chinese virtues: propriety, justice, honesty and shame.

Pan assesses us with a look that is both thrillingly immediate and terribly knowing. Her left hand holds the brush, keeping the tip in contact with her painted hand on the work-in-progress. Her Chinese dress – a pointillist intermingling of the work’s dominant reds, oranges and blues – hints at many identities: the urban Shanghai woman, the intellectual, the artist. The curtain at the edge of the painting, momentarily opened, reveals a Chinese
library mostly hidden from our gaze.

Nude, 1952, Chinese ink and coloured ink on paper, 91 x 65 cm. Courtesy: Sotheby's, New York 

The viewer has the feeling that she can pull Pan out of her painting, through the looking glass and into another world. But the artist’s expression indicates that the viewer may be equally isolated or caught between identities.

Born in 1895, Pan lived 42 years in China (mostly Shanghai) and 40 in Paris. A chronology compiled by her family includes entries on her repeated hopes to repatriate – 1949, 1951, 1954, 1956, 1965, 1973, 1976 – and notes that, in 1956, her departure was delayed because ‘French authorities would not let her take her works’. She was 78 when, severely ill, she was said to be desolate with homesickness.1

The chronology lists ceaseless exhibitions, commissions, recognition, illnesses and disappointments. Did she have difficulty finding Chinese women to pose nude for her paintings? She was almost certainly too poor to pay them. Throughout her life, her primary nude model was herself.

The 1911 Revolution – which ended in 1912, when Pan was 17, with the victory of Sun Yat-sen’s republican forces – brought an end to more than two millennia of imperial rule in China. Transformative political change instigated a period of self-reckoning and, over the succeeding decades, Chinese intellectuals would embrace, discard and synthesize the old and new ideas reshaping their nation; for many artists, the techniques of the European avant-garde became a path for personal liberation.

Pan Yuliang, 1929. Courtessy: Anhui Museum, Hefei

Orphaned as a child and then sold into a brothel, Pan’s freedom was purchased in 1913 by a customs official named Pan Zanhua to whom she became a concubine. She was 18 years old and, in surname at least, lifted out from the ranks of the despised; almost overnight, she entered the parlours of Shanghai’s merchant and artist circles. At 25, she was accepted into the Shanghai Art Academy, which was at the forefront of teaching xiyanghua, ‘Western painting style’. For her teachers, French impressionism had a deep appeal; Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Georges Seurat embodied a compositional language that seemed to refute Chinese artistic traditions. ‘We will freely and cohesively construct a world of pure shapes,’ read the manifesto of one of Shanghai’s modernist groups. In 1923, Pan was invited to study in France, spending two years at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris before spending a further year in Rome.

For Chinese artists of her generation, as it had been for the French impressionists, exchange was crucial. Matisse, through his significant collection of Chinese ink-and-brush paintings and Japanese ukiyo-e, had studied the philosophy and practice of East Asian art. In reviewing the 1997 exhibition ‘Matisse: “La Révélation m’est venue de l’Orient”’ (The Revelation Came to Me from the Orient), Roderick Conway Morris observed in The New York Times: ‘The directness with which the artist took colours from Oriental models is at times startling [...] but it is equally clear that these forms and colours encapsulated for him the very essence of the secrets that Oriental art possessed and Western art lacked.’2 Exactly what these essences might be is hard to articulate; but East and West have, through centuries of contact, utilized each other to explore qualities imagined to be unarticulated or dormant in themselves.

Of the 4,000 paintings Pan left behind, more than half are nudes of non-white women. As scholar Phyllis Teo observes, in Western art, white women are presented as the idealization of beauty and femininity, while the bodies of non-white women have persistently been used to signify what the art historian Stephen F. Eisenman describes as‘intellectual, physical and moral depravity, morbidity and inferiority’.3 In observing her own body, Pan was using the idiom with a very different philosophy in mind. Her lines have an intimacy I associate with calligraphy or handwriting. In Chinese calligraphy, the line is a recordof minutefluctuations in breath, intention, pressure,ink, water, intelligence and feeling – in sum, what could be imagined as character.

Pan Yuliang, Narcissism, c.1929, pastel on paper, dimensions unknown. Courtesy: Anhui Museum, Hefei

By 1937, Pan’s nudes were coming under increased scrutiny in a China torn apart by the brutalities of war and a rising tide of nationalism. Months after one of her paintings was defaced with the words ‘A prostitute’s tribute to her patron’, she left for Paris. Historian Ya-chen Chen movingly observes how China’s emergent feminism failed the artist: ‘The female body freed from the brothel became an important signifier in the discourse of emancipation, but the woman herself is dispensable.’4 For the next 40 years, Pan would live in increasing poverty, although what precisely prevented her from returning home remains a mystery. The artist Nikita Yingqian Cai, who curated an exhibition of contemporary responses to Pan’s work at the Guangdong Times Museum last year, speculates that Pan did not return to China because she continued to support Pan Zanhua and his family throughout the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. Contemporaries describe her as outspoken and unbecomingly forthright. Despite belonging to a generation that prided itself on its revolutionary ideals, she was a woman whose boldness did not sit well with the times.

Had she returned to China, Pan’s life might be imagined. During the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, Fang Ganmin, who once painted cubist nudes, was paraded around the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, ink poured over him as students beat and denounced him. Pang Xunqin, one of the founders of the Central Academy of Arts and Craft, was branded a counter-revolutionary, a label he carried for 22 years. He himself burned his most famous work, Son of the Earth, painted in remembrance of the Jiangnan famine of 1934; at least 80 percent of his paintings were destroyed. The horrific stories of Chinese artists and intellectuals during Mao’s political campaigns – their suicides and losses – have filled volumes.

The residue of 1930s Shanghai – described by author Lynn Pan as ‘the brevity of that time of unparalleled vitality’5 – is, I think, coded into Pan’s work: loneliness in the community of male artists; bold colour in a time of political transformation; a prescience that nudity – as fertility, vulnerability, taboo, power, equality, rebellion – might be the most apt metaphor for a China where everything was at stake.

The civil war ended in 1949 with the ascendancy of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Conflating self and country, modernization and nationalism, believers would draw ever more stringent and, ultimately, violent lines between themselves and their artistic inheritance. Over the next 30 years, at least 60 million would lose their lives as a direct result of Mao’s political campaigns. Universities would be closed, music, paintings and books destroyed, yet art, both propagandistic and subversive, would leave its imprints. Curator and artist Zheng Shengtian writes powerfully of the decades preceding these catastrophes: the political fault lines between modernist and realist Chinese artists who disagreed vehemently on the degree to which individual liberties should be sacrificed in the name of national rejuvenation – the struggle to make China great once more.

Pan Yuliang, Nude, 1942, ink on paper, 42 x 27 cm. Courtesy: Musée Cernuschi, Paris/Roger-Viollet

‘I have always tried to conceal the signs of effort,’ Matisse once said, and I have a feeling that Pan spent a lifetime engaged in a similar practice, concealing the effort, deliberation and personal cost of her work. It is hard to say, though. As a novelist, I’m moved by one particular detail: in both China and France, Pan left behind very little writing, including notes or commentary on her exhibitions. Her writings, Cai says, were ‘private correspondences with families, around issues such as health, money, offspring and her early encounters with Pan Zanhua’. Celebrated as an artist who merged Western composition with Chinese brush-and-ink style, she may have relied on ink because she didn’t have the money to buy the costly materials required for oil painting. Huang Xiuying, curator at the Anhui Museum, which owns a number of Pan’s works, told an interviewer that, due to poverty, ‘sometimes she even had to use the same paper several times’. She spent her life training her eye to see a changing thing – the female nude and her own body – and, perhaps, as the Chinese artist Qi Baishi said of his more classical work, Pan hoped her modernist paintings would ‘achieve a likeness both in shape and spirit’.

In her thousands of nudes of non-white women, she both exposed everything and yet, by way of crossed legs and backs and breasts, only a little of herself. Pan’s paintings move me because her women convey a profound sense of ownership of their own bodies. Their secrets, intimacies and pleasures are theirs to ponder, and their nude bodies are already possessed, already beloved, by the women themselves. Pan’s figures are not curved towards the viewer, but seem instead to be following the shape, the spirit, of themselves.

Pan died in 1977 and is buried at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. She is absent from almost all narratives of the Parisian artistic circles in which she lived, even as she received honours from them during her lifetime. Teo notes that her remaining works in France are ‘mostly possessed by institutions that either take a special interest in Asian artefacts or are pieces of interest only to collectors’. Recent retrospectives of her work and rising auction prices may change the way we see Pan; I have this feeling that she always saw through us and past us, decades ago and even now.

1  Chronology compiled by Pan Yuliang’s grandson-in-law and available at: In 1973, the chronology notes, ‘Hospitalized for treatment, desolated that not able to return to China.’ See also:
2  Roderick Conway Morris, ‘The Sources of Matisse’s Style: An Oriental Revelation’, The New York Times, 29 November 1997
3  Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art – A Critical History, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002, p. 287. Quoted in Phyllis Teo, ‘Modernism and Orientalism: The Ambiguous Nudes of Chinese Artist Pan Yuliang’, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 12: 2, December 2010, pp. 65–80
4  Ya-chen Chan, New Modern Chinese Women and Gender Politics, Routledge, London, 2014, p. 106
5  Lynn Pan, Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars, Long River Press, San Francisco, 2008

This article appears in the print edition of the April 2018 issue, with the headline Bodies in Exile.

Main image: Pan Yuliang, Bar + Lady (detail), 1948, oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Madeleine Thien is the author of four works of fiction. Her 2016 novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about art and revolution in 20th-century China, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governon-General's Literary Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Women's Prize for Fiction and The Folio Prize. She is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, New York, USA.