Merging Chinese and Western Cultures: The Birth of Chinese Nude Paintings
As early as the times of the ancient Greeks, the West have explored and studied the proportion of human bodies. The rise of humanism during Renaissance re-established the value of the self by lauding human bodies, hence provided a solid foundation for the aesthetics of body art. In classical Chinese paintings, there is the traditional notion of "man and nature in one" that often conjoins the self with nature; but the human body was never an independent subject in its own right. During the May Fourth Movement and the consequent opening of China towards Western culture, literary works began to focus on the female imagery. The progression towards a society of greater women's rights and empowerment encouraged the artist's experimentations in depicting the female body as an independent subject. Art teachers like Liu Haisu introduced life drawing classes featuring nude models to their students; and consequently nude paintings began to appear in China. The female nude becomes the central theme in Pan Yuliang's works. It does not only represent the artistic pursuit for beauty and ideal form, but also thoroughly reflects the artist's need to express herself and her longing for freedom, in spite of growing up in a more conservative environment during her childhood.
Pan received formal training in Western oil painting beginning in the late 1910s. In the 1940s, she explored the possibility of returning to traditional Chinese art forms, and incorporating elements of these into her oil paintings. Pan began to use cun fa, a traditional ink technique to depict rocky mountains, in her oil paintings. The technique of cun fa is based on points and lines when sketching an image, presenting the rich texture of landscapes, rocks, and fabrics, and illustrates how lines and contours is an inherently important element in classical Chinese paintings (Fig. 1). In Western painting, on the other hand, artists use tools like palette knife to create heavy impasto in oils in order to convey a sense of texture and depth. Whereas Pan uses sensuous, hatched strokes in different sizes all over the canvas, combining techniques of both ink and oil paintings to create a new perspective. In the background of the work Self-Portrait (Fig. 2) dated from 1948, the strokes of irregular crosses gave the original thick paint a sense of layers, penetrating the whole pictorial space. The early 1950s mark an important shift in terms of Pan's artistic style. She started to shift her focus from oil paintings to colour ink paintings. With a solid foundation in draftsmanship, Pan began to use ink brush and colour to paint on rice paper in a very distinctive style.
In The Dreamer (Lot 16), dated from 1955, Pan achieved a breakthrough with her treatment of the background in the style of an ink-wash painting, employing the traditional cun fa technique in her oil painting. The criss-crossing hatched strokes are crisp and short, interweaving into varying degrees of shades that are reminiscent of Chinese cursive calligraphy. The sense of freedom and expressiveness in her brushwork is dramatically enhanced. Pan noticed that figures in Chinese paintings were outlined in an extremely flat manner and they lack the perception of volume that is meticulously rendered in Western oil paintings by observing the effect of light and shadows. Pan attempted to use different shades of ink to reflect effects of light and shadow in Chinese paintings. In the background of The Dreamer, the dense ink strokes overlap while extending outward from the centre. The variety of shades and density in the hatched strokes create the depth within the pictorial space. Pan's hatched strokes, brisk and clean at different lengths, permeate the picture plane densely mixed in ink and colour. This unique way of painting the background is a departure from the tradition of liu bai, leaving quiet spaces in the background, in Chinese paintings. It offers a three dimensional perspective taken from Western painting theories. The short, interwoven strokes of cadmium yellow are scattered in the centre of the picture. The contrast of red and yellow creates a sense of light shining through, electrifying and deepening the entire expanse.
Theories of abstract forms prevailed in Post-war European and American art circles in the 1950s. For instance, Helena Vieira da Silva, the female painter advocating abstract art, used points, strokes, surfaces, and geometric shapes to present the space and its depth (Fig. 3). The master of American Abstract Expressionism Jackson Pollock created action painting made through body movements. Pan incorporated cun fa in Chinese painting traditions to render a space. Today, we are re-examining the art history of that era. Artists from different culture backgrounds strive to enrich the progression of art with their own cultural nourishment, and develop the new aesthetics blending East and West.
The Dreamer depicted a cross-legged woman in deep thoughts, with her knees bent, hands to her side, and only showing the profile of her face. The elegant pose and gesture shows Pan's solid training in drawing. Compared to the Western modern master Modigliani's proficient use of colour to dominate space (Fig. 4), the sense of space in Pan's portrait is depicted through lines. For Pan, lines construct an image and form, which serves to express the soul. The gentle beauty of women, as is often the theme in Chinese cultural traditions, cannot be seen in Pan's work. Pan chose to depict a woman of robust form and spirit, with its sensual curvaceous body contours that are typical of Western classical art. In the image, Pan boldly presents the poised lady with her shirt unbuttoned, representing her self-confidence and sensuality. This is not only an image of a high-spirited lady, but also symbolic of the momentous times of changes in Chinese society that Pan timelessly captures in her works.