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2017.06.07 Wed, by
Pan Yuliang : un voyage vers le silence

Vernissage à la Villa Vassilieff (Allée Marie-Vassilieff, Chemin du Montparnasse, 21 avenue du Maine 75015, Paris) 20 May – 24 June, 2017

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 [1].” 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 [2].


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 [3].” 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 [4].” 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 [5]” 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 [6]”. 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 [7]”, 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 [8].

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 [9]’.” 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