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March 5, 2012

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The legendary life of artist Pan Yuliang

A day in the summer of 1977 at an attic room in suburban Paris, legendary painter Pan Yuliang died at the age of 82, leaving thousands of paintings and a last wish - take all artworks back to China.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Pan's last wish was fulfilled. It was then that her story of being sold to a brothel, becoming a concubine and eventually winding up in Paris as a lonely painter haunted by impoverishment and nostalgia was noticed by Chinese.

Today, most of her art, as she wished, is on display at Anhui Museum (she was born in Anhui Province). The museum transported more than 100 of Pan's works for an exhibition at Zhejiang Art Museum in Hangzhou through March 25. Named "The Other Side," the exhibition displays Pan's oil paintings, Chinese paintings and sketches. A good majority are nude portraits of women.

Pan, renowned as the first woman in the country to paint in the Western style, combined both Oriental and Western painting styles in her work.

Critics say her fusion of Chinese ink-wash painting and Western-style compositions was truly innovative. The influence of French artist Henri Matisse is apparent in her brightly colored paintings, mixed with a traditional Chinese elegance and restraint in her many strong nudes. The women are usually plump with fleshy legs and buttocks.

In some portraits, Pan shaped human bodies in a Chinese style while using pointillism to fill in the background.

Some critics relate her nude paintings to her earlier life as a prostitute, yet some claim she was simply attracted to the beauty of the female form. Others attributed it to her studying Western art from the beginning of her painting career.

The ongoing exhibition allows audiences to ponder how Pan has contributed to modern art with her depiction of the world as well as with hints of Chinese calligraphy and painting.

Pan's story is one of perseverance and triumph of the human spirit.

Originally named Zhang Yuliang, she was born in Anhui Province in 1895 and became an orphan when her parents died.

She was sold by her uncle to a brothel at 13, where she later met Pan Zanhua, a customs official. Pan bought her and married her as a concubine. Out of gratitude, she changed her family name to Pan.

Pan started learning Western painting from their neighbor Hong Ye, a teacher at Shanghai Art Institute, then one of the most avant-garde art schools in China.

Liu Haisu, a friend of Pan Zanhua and headmaster of the school, noticed Pan Yuliang's talent and encouraged her to apply to his school. She later became the first female student of the school.

She loved to paint nude portraits, which was still taboo in China at the time. She had to go to public bathrooms to do sketches.

In 1921, after graduating from the Shanghai Art Institute, she went to France to study in Lyons and Paris, sponsored by her husband. She later studied painting and sculpture at the Roman Royal Art Academy in Italy.

In 1929 she returned to China and invited to be a professor at Shanghai Art Institute.

However, life became difficult. Some said her paintings were really those of her teacher Hong Ye while others tried to ruin her reputation by labeling her as a prostitute.

Proficient skill

In 1936, during her fifth solo exhibition, someone tore up one of her paintings, which depicted a strong man moving a stone to let a small flower under it grow, and wrote: "This is a prostitute's carol to a whoremonger."

In 1937, she left China again.

In the Hangzhou exhibition, most pieces were created during her stay in France after 1937, when she started to try to sketch the human body with a slender Chinese brush.

"People can see her proficient skill by looking at her brush sketches of human bodies," says Huang Xiuying, vice curator of Anhui Museum. "The lines are thin yet stable, vigorous yet feminine."

In Paris, she was known as a "Three No" lady, which means no French nationality, no lover and no contract with a gallery. She wanted to be an independent artist, although she suffered from poverty and loneliness.

Not surprisingly, many of her paintings depict sadness, according to Huang.

Of note among the pieces on exhibition are three of her self-portraits.

In the one she painted in France in 1940, Pan is wearing a black cheongsam with a golden dragon pattern. She is sitting beside a vase with crimson-colored flowers against a light yellow background - decent and melancholy.

"She lined out the sadness, but she also used vivid colors, which shows her unique sense of art, which can also be seen in her many flower paintings," Huang says.

In her final days, Pan Yuliang missed her homeland bitterly. Every time she wrote a letter home, she would express her desire to return. But the French government did not allow her to take her works with her. Her poor health and the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) postponed her journey again and again.

In 1977, she died in an attic in suburban Paris, leaving about 4,000 artworks behind.

Today, her works are collected by many places including the Paris government, the French Ministry of Education, Cernuschi Museum and museums in China.

Date: through March 25, 9am-4:30pm (closed on Mondays)

Venue: Zhejiang Art Museum, 138 Nanshan Rd

Admission: Free

Other exhibitions

Two other shows are ongoing at Zhejiang Art Museum - Chinese Peasant Painting Exhibition and Huang Binhong's Landscape Paintings.

The peasant painting exhibit shows how artists from rural areas draw inspiration from daily life. Their works depict rural settings and folk customs in exaggerated forms and bold colors. Their paintings are full of energy and imagination and are visually appealing. This exhibition features 80 high-quality paintings and ends on April 26.

Huang Binhong (1865-1955), a native of Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, was a prominent Chinese painter. He was trained in the Xin'an School of Painting but later developed his own style. Huang traveled extensively in China to sketch famous mountains and rivers, drawing inspiration from nature. His landscape paintings are vivid and beautiful. This exhibition which will run through March 25 displays 39 of his paintings.


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