Truly a Pioneer among Female Artists
A glimpse of the moon hangs over the capital,
Washing-mallets are still pounding and bounding;
And the autumn wind blowing my heart,
For ever and ever towards the Jade Passage;
Oh, when will the Tartars troop be conquered?
And my lover comes back from the long campaign!
Ballads of Four Seasons: Autumn by Li Bai
"For ever and ever towards the Jade Passage" is one of the two most favored seals by Pan Yuliang, the female Chinese artist who lived in France in the early 20th century. This seal would be used in her paintings whenever the artist missed her home. Pan had gone to France twice in her legendary life. During her stay in Paris for over 40 years, Pan dedicated her life to the ideas of "integrating Western and Eastern art", "searching for the essence from the sages of the past" and "losing oneself in the study of the past sages". As one of the few Chinese artists whose works were exhibited several times at the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in Paris and were collected permanently by the Musee d'Art Modern, she contributed greatly to the development of modern Chinese art and its promotion in the West. Although she lived abroad, this leading artist in modern Chinese art history had strong affection for her home country. Pan passed away in 1977 in Paris and left behind a body of more than a thousand works. These all returned to Anhui, China, the hometown of her husband, as desired by the artist, and are in the permanent collection of the Anhui Museum. An extraordinary body of works, these symbolize her life-long contribution to her motherland.
Nudes are an important subject in Pan's paintings. They not only represent the pursuit of the ideal and of beauty in her artistic creations, but also challenged the social customs in early 20th Century China. Nudes hold an important position in Western art history, from ancient Greek sculptures to The Birth of Venus by 15th century Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (fig. 1). However, in China, nude subjects did not develop until the introduction of nude models in modern painting classes in early 20th century. The first nude sketching class was introduced by Pan's mentor Liu Haisu at the Shanghai Art College in 1917, the year before Pan went to the college. At this time, the college was repeatedly the center of controversy due to its exhibitions of students' nude drawings. It was under these difficult circumstances that Pan started her studies at the Shanghai Art College. Under the instruction and inspiration of Wang Jiyuan, the professor of oil paintings, Pan understood that the nude, contrary to being detrimental to public morale was a form of artistic inspiration throughout history. In nature, the human body is perfect, graceful in form and vigorous in spirit; it carries great aesthetic value in its own right. Pan perfected her skills in portraying anatomically accurate figures through an academic training rooted in realism and observation, and from copying works of the Old European masters. As a result, Pan's oil paintings of figures became more and more luscious and vivid. 1932 was a turning point in Pan's artistic career when following the suggestion of Liu Haisu, Pan decided to study Chinese traditional painting while continuing to absorb new artistic trends in the West to establish her own personal style.
Pan began to study Chinese ink paintings and employ traditional Chinese calligraphic lines to outline the forms. She hoped to create a brand new image of Chinese nudes by using traditional painting techniques create a poetic atmosphere within the composition. From 1942 onwards, Pan used the brush, ink and colour to paint figures on Chinese rice paper. Nudes and Masks (Lot 1008), painted in 1956 , is a representative work of the unique genre of ink and color nude paintings Pan had been practicing for many years. Unlike traditional Western oil painting that applies shading and modeling, traditional Chinese paintings places emphasis on lines and flat color washes. This particular work demonstrates Pan's ability to combine Eastern and Western painting techniques in presenting the Venus-like women in their sensual nude forms. The lines of a well-trained ink painter, varied in speed, power, intensity and weight of the brush, express the artist's emotions, personality and Chinese painting and calligraphy traditions. In Nudes and Masks, lines are controlled and precise, effectively inviting the eyes of the viewer to follow the natural grace of the undulating contours of the female form.
Lines constitute forms, and forms can express the soul. Nudes and Masks depicts a woman sitting cross-legged with another woman sitting opposite her. Composed in a strict and deliberate manner, the forms and poses of the figures are reminiscent of the sculptures by Auguste Rodin (fig. 2) who sought to express ideals of beauty through the human form. Pan was also inspired by the avant-garde works of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse (fig.3), Georges Braque and Amadeo Modigliani, each of whom contributed to a new artistic direction in depicting the nude figure that emphasized on the unity of form and spirit, rather than merely presenting the likeness of forms through naturalistic rendering.
Renowned French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan discussed the difference between Ego and the Ideal-Ego in his famous Mirror Stage theory, pointing to the distance between the person who stands in front of the mirror and his image in the mirror. The subject trying to identify his or her Ego in the mirror finds that the mirror image is only the Ideal Ego which functions as a promise of future. In Nudes and Masks, a nude figure faces the viewer while the other has her back towards us; they look at each other with a wooden box full of masks sitting between them. This ambiguous scene suggests a Lacanian interpretation of the relationship between the two figures. The combed-hair woman is the mirror image of the woman holding a mask sitting opposite of her; as such, the two figures might be interpreted as the "Ego" and "Ideal Ego" of the artist herself. The "Ego" in this painting, surrounded by masks, clenches her mouth in contrast with the laughing mask that she holds in her hand; the "Ideal Ego" is plain and unconcealed, represents Pan's ideal self. Although Pan won recognition and multiple awards in Paris, she was still troubled by the loneliness of living in a foreign land. She was bold and confident in her artistic vision, while her works also reveal the subtle feelings of a woman who longed to return her home country and family. In fact, according to Xu Yongsun, the grandson-in-law of the artist, Pan Yuliang had applied to return to China in 1956 but was discouraged when the French government blocked the shipment of her paintings back to China.
Nudes and Masks is actually a unique, symbolic self-portrait of Pan, with profound psychological implications, expressing the paradoxical expectations of the heart. This painting, full of philosophic and psychological revelation is not merely an aesthetic exercise but more importantly, displays the artist's shrewd re-animation of the genre of the female nude. It is of note, too, that the nude with her back towards the viewer is an image that has appeared in another Pan's work, such as the poster of Pan Yuliang's Solo Exhibition held in Galerie D'Orsay, Paris in 1953 (fig 5.). We can understand the meaning of this image is further deepened in Nudes and Masks, a remarkable piece representing the mature period of Pan's artistic development.
Pan parted from the custom of "blank-leaving" in traditional Chinese painting (the deliberate use of empty space in classical compositions), and applied a dense network of interlacing and overlapping short lines and dry light washes to strengthen the spaces and layers in Nudes and Masks, a technique similar to that of Pointillism (fig. 7). The technique may be "Western", but it also evokes the dense needlework in Chinese embroidery, which Pan's mother exceled in. Although Pan's mother passed away when Pan was only eight years old, her significant influence over Pan can be seen in the discrete inclusion of floral print cloth. This ink and colour Nudes and Masks is as appealing as her oil painting Artist Self-Portrait (fig. 8) with its strong colour palette and graceful style, which represents both the strength and fragility of the female artist. Through these works we can sense both the complex emotions and innovation of Pan Yuliang as she breaks away from the restrictions of social norms and presents a true naked self for the viewers to see.
Note: According to the artist biography organized by Xu Yongsheng, the artist's grandson-in-law, Pan Yuliang travelled to London with Zhang Daqian for an exhibition in 1956.