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July 31, 2009

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Languid ladies and gramophones

A vivid art show tells tales of shikumen life and languid ladies in qipao. Wang Jie reports. Li Shoubai, a famous paper-cut master and painter, was born in a traditional shikumen (stone-gate) house, and life in the cozy abode and narrow lane has inspired his work.

Li, now in his 50s, recreates his childhood memories and fantasies in an exhibition of elaborate and detailed paintings, paper-cuts and sculptures at the Shoubai Art Center on Taikang Road.

The paper-cut master won the 2007 Golden Scissors Award.

The Taikang Road neighborhood is filled with longtang (lanes) and shikumen houses that are vanishing throughout the city.

Li's colorful nostalgic works are filled with ladies wearing patterned qipao, many of them with perms and trendy bob haircuts from the old days. There are gramophones, rickshaws, vintage autos, kids flying kites, family scenes and vignettes from daily life.

Having grown up in a shikumen house, Li is able to unveil the details of its varied inner life, evoking nostalgia in locals and curiosity in foreigners.

"I hope to show the mentality of a good life, as most of the similar paintings about old Shanghai have relatively gloomy tones and a depressed feeling," says Li. "I introduce some modern elements to satisfy the aesthetic taste of people today."

Sometimes Li uses Western oil painting techniques, especially in the balance between light and dark, black and white and use of color and lighting.

In revealing the old days, Li often presents a kaleidoscopic cross section of a narrow townhouse, showing different activities on different floors. Ladies in qipao lounging and primping figure prominently. People enjoy tea, fan themselves in the heat and hang out the laundry. There's the cat sunning itself, the bird in its cage, the fish ready to be cooked.

The scenes evoke the vitality of shikumen life, especially the harmonious relations among neighbors who lived shoulder-to-shoulder.

Some of Li's paintings are simply scenes without figures, leaving plenty of space for the imagination.

Many of Li's women are languid stereotypes of old Shanghai, exotic and slender, with time on their hands. The reality of life in the longtang was rather different, however, as history shows. Wang Anyi's best-selling novel "The Everlasting Regret" describes women who were mostly average-looking, neat and busy, with a shrewd and practical heart.

They were not aggressive or ambitious, she claims, and their only aim in life was to find a good husband who could provide a good material life with care and love.

Li has a keen eye for the details of shikumen life, yet he doesn't capture the real fragile heart of the shikumen ladies.

Li's extraordinary perception leads to meticulous depiction of intricate and subtle details, from the sophisticated pattern of a qipao to the weather-beaten texture of bamboo furniture. This detail is rarely seen in works of his peers.

His years of creating intricate traditional paper-cuts contributed to his detailed work in paint. Li's father was a famous paper-cut artist and he began learning painting and paper-cutting at the age of six.

Traditional paper-cuts are considered a nonmaterial heritage and its skills have passed from one generation to the next.

"Good paper-cutting is a sign of diligence, patience and detail work," Li says. "As with my painting, I need to innovate a bit to rejuvenate this folk art and keep it up to date. For me, painting and paper-cutting are related and I can easily shuttle between them."

Date: through August 31, 10am-6pm

Address: Bldg 4, 210 Taikang Rd


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