PAN YULIANG (CHINA, 1895-1977)
PAN YULIANG (CHINA, 1895-1977)

Nudes and Masks

PAN YULIANG (CHINA, 1895-1977)
Nudes and Masks
signed in Chinese and dated ‘56’ (upper left)
ink and colour on paper
49 x 64.5 cm. (19 1/4 x 25 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1956
one seal of the artist
Private Collection, London, United Kingdom
Anon. sale; Christie’s Hong Kong, 29 November 2009, Lot 1008
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Sale room notice
Please note that the Chinese provenance should read Lot 39 was previously from a private collection in the UK. The present owner acquired the work from Christie's Hong Kong on 29 November 2009.

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Lot Essay

A slice of moon hangs over Chang'An; the sound of clothes pounded clean echoes everywhere.
The autumn wind never ceases; my thoughts are always of the Jade Pass.
When will the northern tribes be defeated, and my husband return from the distant war?
- Li Bai, An Autumn Ballad

Born in 1895, Pan Yuliang is one of very few female Chinese artists documented in modern art history. Her contemporaries were Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, and Sanyu. After returning from overseas studies in Europe, Pan began her career as an artist and art educator in China in between 1929 and 1936, during a time of many new socio-political movements. Movements for reform including the 'New Woman' and 'New Culture' movements and reforms launched by the major political parties, followed by the Japanese invasion in 1937. The latter prompted Pan’s move to Paris in the same year, where she lived until her death in 1977. Her works received a number of showings in the annual Salon des Indépendants, and some also reside in the permanent collection of the Musée d'art Moderne Nationale. Her artistic achievement is manifested in female nudes ink painting which is developed from her broad training in oil painting, sculpture and ink painting. After being trained in traditional ink-wash painting, she developed a new style of her own. She reformed approaches to traditional Chinese ink-wash painting, establishing a new milestone in the history of modern Chinese art.

In 1920s China, the genre of the female nude that would become a lifelong specialty in Pan's art was seen in ordinary society as threatening and immoral. But fighting the currents of popular opinion, she followed Liu Haisu at the Shanghai Academy of the Arts, the first instructor to introduce a sketching class featuring live nude models. Following her studies in traditional Western painting and sculpture in Europe, her nudes became even more vivid and lifelike. The year 1932 was a turning point in her artistic career, when she began to blend Chinese and Western elementsin her art. From that point on, she began to delve deeper into the Chinese ink medium and using the Chinese brushwork style to form the lines of her figures, her goal being to give Chinese people their own image of the nude portrait. Starting in 1942, she experimented with line paintings using the Chinese calligraphy brush and colored inks on traditional xuan paper for a kind of watercolor painting.

For over the 40 years, Pan’s works have been exhibited internationally in the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, New York, San Francisco and Japan. Nudes and Masks (Lot 39) is executed in 1956, a year during which she and Zhang Daqian traveled together to London, England to participate in an exhibition.

Pan's figures have a sculptural quality, displaying a sense of weight and volume. She delineates the figures she paints with delicate ink lines using a Chinese ink brush, the marks of which are irreversible the moment the brush touches the paper’s surface. The fluidity and accuracy of her lines show no hesitation, forming the image of seated figures relaxed and at ease. Pan, as a graduate with honours from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Art in Paris (1925) and Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, Italy (1928), transplanted her training from western charcoal sketching and sculpture into the traditional eastern medium of ink. By exploring the possibilities of ink on paper, Pan developed a new way of depicting the female nude, imbuing her portrayals with a strong sense of dimensionality and weight.

Chu Teh-Chun, one of Pan's contemporaries, recalled how, in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, 'Pan Yuliang, unlike other artists, produced her sketches with Chinese writing brushes.'1 Having studied Western art, Pan returned to the treasured style of lines in Chinese paintings, outlining her subjects' figures in clear, incisive lines; those lines were long and continuous, flowing and smooth, at times receding slightly into the background, expressing the relaxed, graceful poise of the female figures. Lines of this type recall the painting Admonitions of the Court Instructor, a scroll by Gu Kaizhi of the Eastern Jin, whose line drawing employs supple, continuous curving lines, like newly spun silk, to vividly convey his subjects' poses. Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) was another Chinese artist of this period who introduced Chinesestyle lines into modern figure portrait studies, using white lines with consummate skill to form seeming transparent, gauze-like textures.

Pan's use of ink shading on various parts of her figures gives them an enhanced sense of dimensionality, while her hatched strokes in different sizes throughout the background, combining the techniques of both ink and oil paintings, creates a new perspective. The crisscrossing hatch strokes are crisp and short, interweaving into varying degrees of shadow; in places they recall Chinese cursive calligraphy, heightening the quality of freedom and expressiveness. A similar style is also seen in the work of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992), a contemporary who also presented space through the manner of her brushwork. Moreover, Pan carefully controls the density and strength of her ink application, using strong and soft applications of pale red and blue-violet to form contrasting dark and light tones that create pictorial depth.


Pan Yuliang's figurative works reveal more than one side of her subjects; beyond presenting their appearance, she also delves into their psychological states. Double Nude portrays two separate female figures, one facing the viewer almost directly, the other seen only from behind as the two face each other in a composition that subtly finds deeper emotional meanings. One of the women has her hair tied back in a bun, a type of figure often portrayed in Pan Yuliang's works, as seen also in Seated Nude Holding a Mirror (1956).

Despite her exquisite handling of the face that appears here, Pan intentionally omits the figure’s nose. This unique treatment of faces can be found in other works in both the ink and the oil mediums, such as works in the collection of the Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet. The decision to paint a face without a nose can be read as a representation of herself, a self-portrait of Pan herself, since she suffered for decades from sinusitis. According to the artist's biography, the Pan regularly underwent surgery to treat this condition, first in Shanghai and then later in Paris.

In Nudes and Masks , one woman with long hair is opening a wooden case, holding up a mask so as to share it or suggest it to the other, while two more masks sit on the floor, one a human face and the other a cat's. The faces of these nudes, without makeup, and their figures and the sizes of the decorative masks are all in proportion; the nude figures seem to symbolize 'the original self,' while the masks represent something different, a 'hoped-for image.' The two women also show contrasts between long hair versus the tied-back bun, and in their differing poses vis-a-vis the viewer. The woman with the bun sits with her back to the viewer, allowing us to imagine that she is about to try on the mask. The well-known psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan put forward the concept of the 'mirror stage,' in which there is a distance between a person's self (the 'Self / I') and their ideal or hoped-for image (the 'ideal-I'). This distance is like the space that perpetually exists between a person standing in front of a mirror and their image inside it. A person facing a mirror is attempting to find him or herself within it, but in truth the reflection they see is an idealized self-image. The two figures in the painting could thus in this light be seen as 'the self' and 'the hoped-for image' of the artist.

In her art, Pan Yuliang sought to challenge tradition, yet at the same time kept tradition alive. At the same time art also served simply as a release for her own personal feelings. As a female Chinese painter living abroad in France, the phrase engraved on one of Pan Yuliang's favorite seal stamps throughout her life was, 'one's thoughts always return to the Jade pass.' Every time she finished a work that represented thoughts of home, she would stamp it with this seal. No matter how long this talented female figure in the world of Chinese modern art remained in foreign lands, her heartstrings were always bound up with China. After her death in 1977, her remaining works, in accordance with her wishes, were shipped back to her husband's hometown to become part of the permanent collection of the Anhui Museum, symbolizing that the glory of her life's achievements belonged to China.

1 Chu Teh-Chun, Hebei Education Press, China, 2009.

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