The Womanly Arts
By staff reporter WU BING
Think of a Chinese painter and it is likely you are thinking of a man. The world of Chinese art is generally believed to have been dominated by prolific males. But there are some brilliantly accomplished female painters, past and present, who are well worth a special look back in history, or who are essential to grasping the unique contributions of women to contemporary art. Their life stories and their paintings are a reflection of the conditions experienced by their gender throughout Chinese history, and in the current heady times.
Guan Daosheng, Balancing Home and Worklife
Guan Daosheng (1262-1319) from the Yuan Dynasty was one of the most famous female painters in Chinese pre-modern history. She has been highly praised for her delicate bamboo inks and free style calligraphy, but her versatility was expressed in terms of landscape and Buddha figure painting, as well as poems and prose.
When she was 28 years old, she married Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), making what today might be called a match of “soul mates.” Her husband was knowledgeable and excelled in writing poems and essays, but his greatest achievements were in calligraphy and painting. Throughout their happy marriage – a conjugal life that was the envy of future generations – Guan Daosheng was a companion in her husband’s artistic pursuits, as well as his moral support and social complement as he upheld the integrity of his official post in government.
The bamboos created by her brush are pretty, charming and impressive, some looking as graceful as flying fairies and others as solemn and dignified as warriors. Her surviving works, ranging across calligraphy, painting and embroidery, are all deemed national treasures.
There was an interesting story about the couple’s devotion. After two decades of wedlock Zhao was tempted by the growing trend among his peers of taking young and beautiful concubines, but was too embarrassed to discuss it with his wife. So he encoded his desires into a poem. Guan got the hidden meaning, but instead of confronting him she silently returned it with the verses: “Mold a you and a me with clay, crush down and make again; your mud in me and my mud in you, we share a bed in life and a grave after death.” Deeply moved by her steadfastness, Zhao reined in his wandering mind, and indeed joined her in their last home three years after her death.
Pan Yuliang, Blessed and Cursed
Pan Yuliang (1889-1977), first gaining her reputation during the 1930s, was referred to even then as a “soul haunted by painting.” Tortured by life’s many frustrations, she fell into prostitution in her youth. The dead are forgiven all, but her past was not overlooked or forgotten by her contemporaries.
The young woman was sold to a brothel at the age of 14, where years later an official named Pan Zanhua (1885-1959) bought her freedom and took her as a concubine. With the help of her husband, she passed the exams that allowed her to enter Shanghai Fine Arts School to learn Western painting. After graduating, she went to France for further studies at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. In 1928 she returned to China and was invited to teach at Shanghai Fine Arts School and the Central University of Nanjing. Although her renown was confirmed by successful solo exhibitions, she remained unacceptable to her husband’s principal wife. To get out from under the constant humiliation, she left again for Paris and stayed there to continue her studies in Western and Chinese painting techniques, as well as sculpting. In the four decades thereafter she got by on the sale of her work and taking on students. After a life of acute poverty in the French capital, the struggling painter quietly left the world.
Western eyes spotted her talent and in her years abroad Pan Yuliang had often been invited to display her artworks in France, as well as in the U.S., Britain and Belgium, gleaning over 20 awards that included the Paris Gold Prize and the Belgium Gold Prize. In the 1960s, the Louvre Museum in Paris collected some of her oils, making her the first Chinese artist whose works were selected by the museum.
A legacy of more than 2,000 paintings survives her. The oil paintings, boldly incorporating Chinese and Western styles, vividly expressed through perfect matching of line and color, free and easy brushwork, exuberant tints and extravagant execution.
A couple of books about her life have been published, spawning two films and several TV dramas.
Shi Lan , the Sunshine Lady
In contemporary China, there have emerged many outstanding female painters who reconciled various styles. Shi Lan is one of them. She was born in 1958 in Anhui Province of eastern China to an eminent family of intellectuals. However, her parents didn’t approve of her studying art because the politics of the time made it a greater honor to become a worker. But she went against her parents’ will and made painstaking efforts to study painting. Soon winning fame in her hometown, the determined Shi Lan set out for Beijing, and after visiting many eminent painters entered an apprenticeship with the famous painter Guo Yicong (born in 1940).
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