Pan Yuliang: A Journey to Silence
Opening on May 20, 2017 from 4pm to 9pm
- Mia Yu, An Atlas of Archive, 2017. Courtesy Mia Yu.
Pan Yuliang: A Journey to Silence
With Hu Yun, Huang Jing Yuan, Pan Yuliang, Marc Vaux, Wang Zhibo, Mia Yu
Curated by Nikita Yingqian Cai
The moment we embarked on the journey of investigating Pan Yuliang and her life, we found the prescribed mission of speaking for her impossible.
The largest collection of Pan Yuliang’s oeuvre is held in Anhui Provincial Museum, which is currently under renovation and renders the permanent display of her selected works invisible. Upon our arrival at the museum, Pan Yuliang’s Pan Hold a Fan (1939) was delivered to us in a barrow directly from the museum storage. The door of the elevator shut behind us with the sounds of aged machinery as the portrait silently entered the room: Pan Yuliang was in her signature dark-colored cheongsam and her lips closed with her mouth corner down, looking right at us without revealing much about her state of mind.
“So I arrive at the green door, I’m intrigued. I open it, and guess what? There is a whole party going on, a room full of people, conversations, connections that somehow haven’t made it into mainstream history .” When the London-based writer Sophie Hardach wrote about her fascination with one of Pan Yuliang’s portraits from the 1930s, where the protagonist strikingly resembles Josephine Baker, the most famous black icon of the jazz age in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, Hardach asked the same particular question as we do: “Who is this woman?”
Most academic writings about Pan Yuliang begin with a few paragraphs summarizing her biography as context of the research subject. It is worthy of a lengthy quote from one of the many voices that had tried to speak for her.
Pan was born on 14 June 1895 in Yangzhou in Jiangsu province as Chen Xiuqing, and was renamed Zhang Yuliang when adopted by her uncle after the early passing of her parents. Her guardian sold her to a brothel in the city of Wuhu in Anhui province when she was in her early teens. Greatly empathizing with Yuliang’s desperate situation, Pan Zanhua (潘赞化 1885-1959), a customs official from Wuhu, redeemed her from the brothel. […] Shanghai Art Academy, under the bold leadership of his founder of Liu Haishu (刘海粟, 1896-1994), took in its first batch of female students, including Pan, in 1918. The school’s vision of co-education was a response to the newly appointed Minister of Education in Republic China, Cai Yuanpei’s (蔡元培, 1868-1940) educational reforms. [...]
With her excellent results at the academy, Pan became the first woman artist in the Chinese Republic to win an official scholarship to study in France […]. In 1922, Pan studied at the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris under the tutelage of French artists Lucien Simon (1961-1945) and Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929). […] When Pan graduated from the École in Paris in 1925, she was awarded the prestigious Rome Scholarship at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. In 1928, the year that she returned to China, Pan held her first solo exhibition in Shanghai with the title China’s First Female Western Artist. […] In 1931, Pan decided to accept artist Xu Beihong’s (徐悲鸿, 1895-1953) invitation to teach full time at the art department of the National Central University in Nanking. […] Yu Feng (郁风, 1916-2003), a prominent woman artist who studied under Pan in the 1930s, defended her, “As a highly innovative artist, Pan has every reason to be ranked with her male counterparts, including Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu.” [...]
After departing for Paris in 1937, Pan participated in numerous group exhibitions and held solo ones in various countries, including France, England, Belgium and the United States. [...] Strange as it seems, while she was well-regarded in the French art community, it is her few sculptures rather than her paintings that make up the bulk of her works that are now kept in France. [...] Pan’s Bust of Zhang Daqian (1957), kept by the Musée d’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris, could be considered a timely memorial work for the museum because Zhang 张大千Pan’s teacher and an old friend, had just held a solo exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris in 1956 .
One cannot help but notice that despite the proliferation of scholarship on Pan Yuliang in the past few decades, historical narratives of the artist’s work and life are overwhelmingly marked by names of her male counterparts. The only one female voice, from her student Yu Feng, stood out as notably defensive. It is as if without this constellation of male figures, there would be no way to map the world of Pan Yuliang. The social network of Pan Yuliang’s emerging career as a modernist artist and art educator in the Republican period resonated with larger sociopolitical movements at that time: from the cultural construct of “New Woman” and the New Culture Movement, to the revolution and reform launched by the Nationalist Party and early Communists, and the rise of modern nationalism in China; from the end of the First World War to the Japanese invasion in 1937. While many male peers and acquaintances advocated their social, political and cultural visions in the public and made their way into the mainstream history, Pan Yuliang’s own accounts related to major decisions on changes in her life and her artistic motivation were nowhere to be found. The silencing journey went beyond her return to Paris in 1937 and “Pan Yuliang did not leave any written commentary regarding her concept for the show .” titled Quatre artistes chinoises contemporaines on view March 26 – April 30, 1977 at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris. A few months later, Pan Yuliang passed away in Paris and left behind a few thousand works, which were transported to the basement of the Chinese Embassy in Paris at that time and temporarily stored there until they were sent back to China in 1984. Since then, the self-portrait Pan Hold a Fan (1939) resided in Anhui Provincial Museum until it reappeared in front of us in 2017.
Besides academic research from the perspectives of art history, gender studies and transnational cultural studies, there also emerged a “Pan Yuliang Fever” since the 1990s in pop culture and mass media. According to a book review in The New York Times on March 23, 2008 about Jennifer Cody Epstein’s novel A Painter from Shanghai, Pan Yuliang was “a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter” and “sold into sexual slavery at 14 by her opium-addicted uncle .” Epstein’s novel also got Hrag Vartanian, the Editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic, so interested in the character of Pan Yuliang that he wrote in his blog “From Prostitute to Post-Impressionist: China’s Modern Art Ambassador ” on April 30, 2008 to express his curiosity about her legendary life. Similar language had been used by China Daily as early as 2002, which described her artistic ascension as “From red lights to painting the town red ”. The more articles and reviews picture Pan Yuliang as the oriental Cinderella, the further we drift away from her real efforts and struggles. Here we are locked down again “in a whole party going on, a room full of people, conversations, connections…” as Sophie Hardach metaphorically described. On one hand, we were granted limited access to only a few of her works among the over 4749 pieces in the collection of Anhui Provincial Museum — the state-funded museum is responsible for organizing touring exhibitions of their Pan Yuliang collection which only circulates within the state system; on the other, internet search result about Pan Yuliang turn out to be inexhaustible, regurgitating the same chronology with little new insight into her life and artistic value. It is as if the portrait of Pan Yuliang had turned against our gaze, sunk with the elevator door closing, and withdrawn to her haunting existence. After meeting with Dong Song, director of exhibition in Anhui Provincial Museum and the author of Pan Yuliang Artistic Chronology published in October 2013, whose father was directly involved in organizing Pan Yuliang’s works when they were delivered back from France in 1984, our discussions about Pan Yuliang’s last 40 years in Paris and the absence of her artistic statement were settled with a certain consensus. We all agreed that because of Pan Yuliang’s lower-class origin and the lack of education in her earlier years, she had never acquired the literacy competence to write about her own artistic ideas and practices. She devoted her last 40 years to painting, in a relatively secluded and nostalgic mode. She might have had the opportunity to go back to China after the Second World War but something stopped her, which we speculated that she had provided the main financial support to Pan Zanhua and his family throughout the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. The majority of her writings were private correspondences with families, around issues such as health, money, offspring and her early encounters with Pan Zanhua. Unlike Xu Beihong, Liu Haisu and Zao Wou-Ki who came from privileged background and “loved to quote French expressions directly, sometimes without translation, in his critical texts and even in the inscriptions adorning his drawings ”, Pan Yuliang, an orphan, a woman and a Chinese, faced the situation of double othering and silencing. There is no better way to describe this revelation than what Gayatri Spivak’s citation of Pierre Macherey in her acclaimed essay Can the Subaltern Speak?
What is important in a work is what it does not say. This is not the same as the careless notation “what it refuses to say”, although that would in itself be interesting; a method might be built on it, with the task of measuring the silences, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. But rather this, what the work cannot say is important, because there the elaboration of the utterance is carried out, in a sort of journey to silence .
In the year of 1975, Pan Yuliang was invited by the museum curator Vadime Elisséeff to hold a solo exhibition according to the wish of the late René Grousset (1885 – 1952), curator of the Musée Cernuschi from 1932 to 1952. Instead of just presenting her own works, Pan Yuliang extended the invitation to include three other woman artists who took on traditional art forms and were all Chinese diaspora as Fournier stated in her essay. Looking back on the global exhibition history, Quatre artistes chinoises contemporaines opened in Musée Cernuschi in Paris in 1977 was one of the few earliest exhibitions that presented only woman artists. 40 years after, as curator of Guangdong Times Museum, I was invited by Mélanie Bouteloup and Villa Vassilieff to present a research-oriented project about Chinese artists in the Marc Vaux Archive, where glass plate photographs of Pan Yuliang working in her studio were found. Inspired by Pan Yuliang and her decision to open the 1977 exhibition to others, I invited artists Hu Yun, Huang Jing Yuan, Wang Zhibo and art historian Mia Yu to form a research group functions as a collective subjective agency. Departing from the idea of representing Pan Yuliang by claiming new territories of authority or the delusion of bringing justice to her misrepresentation in the mass media, we displace our own subjectivities in the constellation of Pan Yuliang’s past life and her incarnation in our age as well as in the current exhibition. Art historical papers and essays of gender and cultural studies; articles and reviews from China Daily and The New York Times and archival clippings of newspaper reviews in the 1920s and 1930s; catalogues published by National Museum of China and Anhui Provincial Museum; discussions and interviews with researchers and scholars specialize in Pan Yuliang and woman’s representation in the Republic of China; websites, blogs and exhibitions dedicated to Pan Yuliang; novels, TV dramas, documentaries and films about Pan Yuliang and female artists alike; original pieces, printed matters and digital copies of Pan Yuliang’s works; our own research notes, conversations and trajectories are all treated as equal sources and materials for investigation and presentation. Spivak was right in suggesting that “the archival, historiographic, disciplinary-critical and, inevitably, interventionist work involved here is indeed a task of ‘measuring the silences ’.” Both as object of phallocentric and ideological construction and as subject of modern emancipation, Pan Yuliang is inevitably marked as the Other in her country of origin as well as in Europe. So can we address ourselves to another layer of narratives that do not consolidate Pan Yuliang’s position as the Other? Can we find the otherness in ourselves by projecting onto Pan Yuliang’s struggles, and further, can we retrace Pan Yuliang’s path by crossing into our own?
As an art historian who attempts to blend her research with an artistic voice, Mia Yu created an archive-based project titled An Atlas of Archives (2017). After immersing herself in the archival materials and historical writings about Pan Yuliang, Mia Yu set out on a journey to trace Pan Yuliang’s life trajectories in China. By physically situating herself in a series of historical sites and engaging intense conversations with the people she met along the journey, Mia Yu not only re-imagined the past through personal experiences but also constantly intersected history with the contemporary reality. In the exhibition, Mia Yu presents a multi-layered archive, comprising of archival materials, personal notes, photos, journal entries and records of private discussions. Popping up throughout the exhibition space, the clusters of archive intertwine with other works and simultaneously invite other artists’ interventions. While Wang Zhibo, a painter whose educational background in academic realism at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou can be dated back to the 1920s and 1930s, when Pan Yuliang and her male peers laid the foundation of the modern art education system in China, is now ready to move on to her new studio in Berlin while working on the exhibition in Villa Vassilieff in Paris. Wang is intrigued by the Parisian moments of Pan Yuliang’s seemingly traditional life and self-portraits as a Chinese woman. By making new paintings based on Pan Yuliang and setting up a woman painter’s studio in Villa Vassilieff, she creates a detour of Her (2017) between Pan Yuliang and a Chinese woman born almost a century later. In Huang Jing Yuan’s video and installation Unkind Jade: Three Chinese Painters (2017), her own path as a visual artist and woman is reflected upon by subjective narratives of her father, who failed his own dream of becoming an artist due to the Cultural Revolution but held onto the doubts of women’s struggle for artistic autonomy. The interfering images and sounds from TV programs and soap operas are presented as circumstantial evidence in the everyday life of an ordinary Chinese who has difficulty speaking for their own precarious subjectivity. The subtle disappointment and tension within the family resonate with the ubiquitous obstacles that women encounter while pursuing their artistic passion. Hu Yun, a young father who was born in the French Concession in Shanghai 50 years after Pan Yuliang’s second departure from Shanghai, is invited to further develop his artistic research on the institutionalization and ideals of modernity introduced by European missionaries or Chinese intellectuals that have been overshadowed in mainstream history. Besides presenting his own work, Hu‘s Autoportrait (2017) incorporates elements of life and artistic practice of Chinese artists and intellectuals who lived in Paris through different periods, intervening in the setup of Mia Yu’s chronology or installations by Wang Zhibo and Huang Jing Yuan. Defying the usual autonomous zone of individual work and artist, all participants in the exhibition are hosts as well as guests of each other’s contribution. The research and the exhibition form a polyphonic orchestra that not only echoes Pan Yuliang’s unique trajectory between modern and traditional China, but also situates her constructed biography and artistic achievement within contemporary motives, detours, and cosmos. After the presentation at Villa Vassilieff, the journey will unfold into its second chapter in Guangdong Times Museum, where more artists are invited to join the conversation and develop new interrogations arising from Pan Yuliang and responding to the current situation of women and women artists in China.
So what haven’t we said about Pan Yuliang in this room?
Nikita Yingqian Cai
March 8, 2017
 Anik Micheline Fournier, Building Nation and Self Through the Other: Two Exhibitions of Chinese Painting in Paris, 1933/1977 (Mémoire de recherche). Department of Art History and Communications, McGill University, Montréal, October 2004, p.60
 Éric Lefebvre, « Ways to Modernity, Chinese Artists in Paris » in Paris – Chinese Painting : Legacy of the 20th Century Chinese Masters, Honk-Kong Museum of Art, 2014, p. 33
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan Education: Basingstoke, 1988, pp. 271-313