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Pan Yuliang

( Yangzhou 1895 - Parigi 1977 )


    Pan Yuliang

    Pan Yuliang, born in 1895 in Yangzhou under the name Chen Xiuqing, is one of the most famous Chinese painters of the first half of the 20th century, known above all for revolutionising her country’s painting by creating a happy and sophisticated marriage with the language of the West.

    After the death of her parents, she was entrusted to her uncle, who sold her to a brothel at the age of fourteen in order to set her up as a prostitute. Noticed by a rich official, a frequenter of the place where she works, she is asked by him to marry, receiving her freedom. At this point she takes her name Pan, joining her uncle’s surname Yuliang, with which she will sign all her documents, letters and works.

    A Chinese painter in Europe: the journey of emancipation

    After moving to Shanghai, she entered the local Art School in 1920 where she studied painting with Wang Jiyuan. Despite a long and difficult journey – there were very few female artists in China at the time – she obtained her diploma and, encouraged by her husband, made her first trip to Europe to perfect her skills and study Western art. First she went to Lyon, then the Ecole National Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris and finally a scholarship took her to the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in the mid-1920s. Her works from this early period already show a predilection for bright colours, loose brushstrokes and intimate female representation.

    In 1929, she was invited to teach at the Shanghai School of Art. During this particularly flourishing period, Pan Yuliang held several solo exhibitions in China, where on the one hand she was acclaimed as one of the first artists to be influenced by Western painting, on the other hand she was harshly criticised by the government for the excessive freedom expressed especially in her female nudes, which constitute the true focus of her production.

    A refined and seductive depiction of women

    Inspired by Chinese women or by taking herself as a model, Yuliang has created a language in which the sign remains predominant and colour takes on an expressive importance in its two-dimensional value that makes her works very close to Fauve and Nabis stylistic features.

    Apart from the explicit sensuality of the nudes, what appears most revolutionary in his works is the presentation of a woman with a joyful, free, daring appearance, with an attribute that returns frequently: bare feet of normal size or wearing shoes with heels, so far removed from the constriction of the bands imposed by Chinese tradition.

    In fact, although she was opposed, she represented the achievement of a modernity hitherto unattained in China in the field of women’s art. In 1937, she returned to Paris, where she remained for the rest of her life and where, in addition to continuing to paint, she was also appointed president of the Chinese Art Association.

    In her last self-portrait completed in 1963, the artist sits with her blouse open and her breasts exposed, while her left arm is resting on a table with a glass and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. Now free of the social constraints that had led her to voluntary exile in Paris, Pan in her later French years expresses a certain nostalgia for China; it is no coincidence, in fact, that she has never renounced her Chinese citizenship. Despite her success in Europe and America, Pan Yuliang was all but forgotten in the final phase of her Parisian life. She died in Paris in 1977, at the age of eighty-two.

    Elena Lago


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