From Red Lights to Painting The Town Red

She won world fame with her great works and outstanding artistic talent but was looked down upon by her contemporaries because she was a concubine and an ex-prostitute.

Even today, Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) appears in some Chinese publications more as a degenerated woman with miraculous experiences than as an artist with international influence. She was stereotyped as a charming "beauty artist" in the film "A Soul Haunted by Painting (Hua Hun)," directed by female director Huang Shuqin and starring actress Gong Li in 1993.

No wonder visitors to the exhibition "A Soul Haunted by Painting: Legendary Woman Artist Pan Yuliang" were surprised at the magnificence of Pan's works of art on display.

The exhibition, which runs through Tuesday at the Nationalities' Cultural Palace in Beijing, features 80 oil paintings, ink paintings, sketches and drawings Pan created from the 1940s to the 1960s, when she was living in Paris. Visitors are also encouraged to sit down and enjoy the mentioned film in the exhibition hall.

All exhibits in the show were selected from the huge collection of more than 4,000 precious works Pan bequeathed to the Anhui Provincial Museum upon her death in Europe.

According to Li Tiezhu, exhibition director of the cultural palace, this is the first time so many figure paintings -- mostly portraits of nude women -- by Pan are included in her solo exhibition in Beijing, representing the growing recognition of Pan's artistic achievements and rapid conceptual change in an opener Chinese society.

"During a smaller exhibition in 1993 in another Beijing venue, many of her nude paintings were taken out and the publicity for that show was very low key," Li recalled. "But this time, we just concentrated on exhibiting Pan's figure paintings, especially portraits of nude women. We are glad that it has become quite acceptable for everybody."

A lonely heart

Pan herself faced endless misunderstandings and prejudices throughout her life.

Born as Zhang Yuliang in Yangzhou of East China's Jiangsu Province, she became an orphan at the age of 8. Her uncle raised her for six years and then sold her to a brothel in Wuhu of East China's Anhui Province.

After three years' suffering at the brothel, the teenage prostitute met her future husband, Pan Zanhua, a kind-hearted man who sympathized with her and decided to help her.

A revolutionary and newly appointed customs official to the city of Wuhu, Pan Zanhua was impressed by the girl's sufferings and talents. He managed to rescue her out of the brothel and married her as his second wife in 1916. They moved to Shanghai that year. Feeling grateful to her husband, the young woman named herself after his family name.

It was after marriage that Pan Yuliang began to learn how to write and paint.

Soon her careful and knowledgeable husband discovered her talents. He encouraged her to apply to the Shanghai Art School, one of the earliest art schools in China that taught Western painting. In 1918, she enrolled at the school with especially high scores in drawing and colouration.

In 1921, with the help of her husband and Liu Haisu, president of the Shanghai Art School, she went to France and became the first Chinese student at the National Leon Art School. Two years later, she enrolled at the National Paris Art School where she became a classmate of Xu Beihong (1895-1953), who later became a famous painter in China.

In 1925, she graduated from the Paris school with the highest scores and was given the Rome Scholarship, a supreme honour for students of the top art school in France.

With the scholarship, Pan continued her study of oil painting and sculpture at the Royal School of Fine Arts in Rome for two more years.

While in Rome, Pan's works won gold prizes at the Rome International Art Exhibition and the Italy International Fine Arts Exhibition. She was the first Chinese artist who won awards in such important art events.

In 1928, Pan returned to China at the invitation of Liu Haisu. She held her first solo show in Shanghai and was employed as a professor at the Shanghai Art School by Liu. Soon after, she was invited to be a professor at the art department of the Central University in Nanjing by her classmate Xu Beihong, then director of the department.

With great enthusiasm, Pan devoted herself to art education in her motherland. Teaching at two of the best art schools in China, Pan dreamed of a rosy future for Chinese art and her own career.

But because of social prejudices at that time in China, she was often despised in spite of her professorship and excellence in art. It was also hard for some conventional Chinese colleagues and students to accept her artistic concept with the influence of Western modern art.

"I remember there were only two or three students in Professor Pan's class, which is fairly few compared with the class of professors like Xu Beihong," said Yu Feng, 86, a renowned woman artist who studied under Pan at Central University from 1934-35. "It really worries me today there are too many irresponsible books, media reports, movies and TV programs that distort the image of Pan Yuliang. I was surprised to know there are at least 10 film studios ready to feature her 'romance.'

"She had an impressively strong character, and she embraced art with all her life. Her success as an artist has little to do with her 'legendary' experience."

Under the torturing prejudices, in 1937, Pan left China for Paris, where she led a lonely and frugal life as an independent artist for the next 40 years. After New China was founded in 1949, Pan planned to return home but eventually failed to do so because of the political turbulences, the death of her husband in 1959 and the quickly decaying health of herself.

In 1977, she died in regret and poverty in her small apartment in Paris.

When she was living in France, she refused to change her citizenship from Chinese to French for a better standard of living. When she died, she dressed herself in a traditional Chinese qipao to show her unswerving love of the motherland. In her will, she bequeathed all her works of art to China.

For art's sake

In 1982, when Yu Feng was visiting France with a delegation, she was asked by the Chinese Embassy in Paris to sort out the works Pan Yuliang left behind.

"I was amazed by the thousands of wonderful works randomly stacked in her shabby basement. Like always, she was so diligent and devoting in art. She did everything so well: from oil paintings to ink paintings, from sculptures to sketches..." Yu said.

Yu, then an official with the Chinese Artists' Association, submitted a detailed report to the Ministry of Culture soon after she returned, in which she explained the importance of Pan and her art. In 1985, an expert group was sent to Paris to receive the art works Pan donated. The works were primarily stored in the provincial museum of Anhui, in which her husband's hometown is located.

Since 1985, a number of selected works by Pan Yuliang have been exhibited in more than 20 Chinese cities, including Hefei, Anqing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Changsha, Wuhan, Tianjin, Chongqing and Taipei. The exhibitions stimulated great interest in the public, to the point her legendary life became the center of concern.

"Pan Yuliang has become a household name in China today because of her extraordinary life," remarked Tao Yongbai, an art critic from the China National Arts Academy and co-author of the book "Lost Memories: A History of Chinese Women Painters." However, some people are often interested in her legendary past as a prostitute and concubine but have little knowledge she was one of the outstanding woman artists in China's early Western painting movement, Tao noted.

"When Pan returned to China in 1928, she had already impressed the art circle with her passionate brushwork and bold application of strong colors, as the newborn oil paintings in China then were still lacking in the sense of color."

After she returned to Paris in 1937 again, she studied the interaction between oriental art and Western modern art with growing interest in traditional Chinese arts, such as ink painting and calligraphy, according to Yu.

In her oil paintings of the 1940s -- among them "Self Portrait" (1940) and "Woman with A Hat" (1940) -- the bright and expressive colours still exist but the outlines are often calligraphic, reminiscent of Chinese literati painting.

The expressiveness and simplicity of images and lines became even more distinct in her figure paintings from the 1950s to the 1960s -- reportedly the best part of Pan's art. The subject of these paintings are basically nude women. The outlines of the figures are usually sketched with a few exact and neat calligraphic touches in black. The backgrounds, however, are painted with solid and accumulated brushwork to create a contrast with the simple figures in the forefront.

Her ink painting "Woman Figure" (1963) is the best example of blending oriental linear beauty with figurative techniques of Western painting. The flowing, calligraphic lines add to the tenderness of the image but build up an effect of sculpture, rarely seen in traditional Chinese painting.

Noticeably, a few oil paintings by Pan in the 1950s focus on the subject of Chinese folk customs, and the influence of folk arts is apparent. In "Fan Dance" (1955), the two exhilarated women dancers in blue and red wave paper fans in their hands. Their vibrant movements and the composition are reminiscent of certain painting by Henry Matisse.

Being a highly innovative artist, Pan was always ready to experiment. As one of the best Chinese female artists, Pan has every reason to rank with her male counterparts, including Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu, in Yu's view.

"Most of Pan Yuliang's work focuses on the subject of women and often reflects a sorrowful feeling of being hurt and a desire for a warm family life," said Tao. "In her self portrait series, the woman image is always elegant and self-respectful, yet with an expression of rage and complaint over fate."

The self portraits under Pan Yuliang's own brush, or her art in general, might best tell who she really was like and explain her success and tragedy.

(China Daily May 31, 2002)

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