EPSTEIN ADDS DRAMA TO THE ELUSIVE BIOGRAPHY OF PAN YULIANG
IN ART TEXTBOOKS we often read of how Japanese prints influenced the French Impressionists. Rarely do we hear about cultural movement in the opposite direction: How did Western painting influence Asia? In fiction, that topic was finally taken up by Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Painter from Shanghai (2008).
Epstein earned two of her three academic degrees in Asian studies and international politics. Hence, the novel’s vista on China’s cultural experience in the early twentieth century could not be in better Western hands.
The novel recreates the story of the real-life Chinese painter Pan Yuliang, a former indentured courtesan. During cosmopolitan Shanghai’s roaring twenties, Yuliang rose to be the “famous Madame Pan,” the scandalously modern, woman painter.
In real life, Yuliang’s Impressionist-realist works were mostly of women with flowers and household accoutrements—and mostly as nudes. This Western style of painting was daring in China. Once on show, the artworks enticed the “wealthy Shanghainese and art-savvy Chinese,” the novel tells us, but also goaded detractors to label her “a threat to public decency.”
The heart of the story is Yuliang’s discovery of the Western approach to art—especially life drawing and painting the nude—amid the country’s conservative Confucian strictures on art and design. During her life at the brothel, she once mused, she'd seen the female body in so many contortions that it was impossible for the female form to shock or offend her. To the contrary, though, Yuliang posed her figures in modest elegance. Nevertheless, because they “show all,” as her nervous dealer said, they pushed the envelope in puritanical China.
The novel plays up these ironies. For example, there is open acceptance of brothels and concubines in the society. And yet paying women to be nude models at an art school becomes a public controversy. This draws our heroine’s interest. She tries at home to draw a body, even her own hand, and then has “a rush of clarity” about art. “She can draw them from life. That, of course, is why it’s called ‘life study.’”
She is taught further by a small circle of pro-Western-style artists in Shanghai (whom newspapers called “traitors to art”). One teacher says the obvious in the face of community protest: “Western artists have been performing life studies for centuries.”
After studying in Paris, Yuliang returns to China with a realist style very much akin to the more realist periods of a Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, or Modigliani. This was at a time when art officials tied to government still editorialized that, “Renior is vulgar, Cezanne is shallow, Matisse is inferior.” Yuliang adds to their chagrin by specializing in female nudes. This seals her fate, and in 1937 she will leave China for good.
The works of the historical Pan Yuliang’s (as in Mrs. Pan) have survived in great number, totaling perhaps four thousand. Yet she did not keep a diary, preserve letters, or have her biography detailed before she died in Paris in 1977. As a result, the novelist’s touch is required to enliven The Painter from Shanghai, and it was done by Epstein in four ways.
The first half of the book is essentially about the life of a young Chinese woman sold to a house of prostitution—“the Hall”—after her parents died. The second half begins when a kindhearted businessman saves her from that life; he makes her one of his wives. With time to spare, she “scribbles,” learns about drawing, and then meets students at a Western-style art academy. She persuades its teacher to let her in, though she did not pass the entry test. “I’m better,” she says. That’s why she should get the last opening slot.
Her latent talent appears, and she wins a scholarship to study at the elite École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. There, she has a love affair with a young Chinese exile, Kundu, who is part of the communist movement. It wants to overthrow the old imperial system, and is competing with the Nationalists for who will dictate the new Chinese social order.
Her lover Kundu, it turns out, is a right hand man to Zhou Enlai, the future premier of Communist China. Yuliang's tangential ties to this revolutionary circle, the “CCP cadre,” goes public back in China. As a result, her old-fashioned husband—who has energetically supported her painting career—will lose his job as the Communist-Nationalist rivalry intensifies.
A dramatic crescendo comes in 1929 in Shanghi, which Yuliang calls the “Paris of the East.” She is having a major exhibition. Rightwing thugs who support the Nationalists demolish the exhibit after they steal the paintings. “All gone,” Yuliang says, nearly broken. “Half a lifetime of work.”
The vandals leave only one painting, that of a male figure. She stomps it to pieces and says to the newspaper cameras, “There. . . . I always finish the job.” It’s kind of her motto through the story.
Yuliang is a tenacious, but beaten for the moment. She quits painting. She conforms by being a university teacher. In the end, though, she cannot bear to censure her creativity. On a final night, she embraces her devoted older husband, yearns to bear his child, but all to no avail. In his embrace, “She is already miles away.” She says to herself conclusively, “I didn’t chose to be this way. . . . I’ve tried to change. I simply can’t.”
She buys a one-way ticket to Marseilles, France, where a gallery wants to exhibit her work. Her husband believes China will get better. He thinks she is off on a holiday. She know it’s her final exile.
As a novel, The Painter from Shanghai reveals some of the ironic twists that modern art trends have taken, East and West.
One is seen in the contrast Epstein draws between the opening of Yuliang’s story and the account of the 1929 “disastrous exhibition,” which is a highpoint at the end of the novel. During that exhibit, which nearly ended her career, Yuliang’s paintings were at the cutting edge of controversy. However, in the first pages of the novel, we meet Yuliang at her Paris studio in 1957. She is still painting nude models. But it’s a time in Europe when “People don’t want girls with flowers right now. They want splashes and gashes.” In other words, abstract art has shunted aside the kind of figurative painting to which Yuliang has wedded herself.
Another twist is this: After she leaves China, the Communist Party enforces “socialist realism” as the only acceptable form of painting. The party rejects the same imperial aesthetic that Yuliang and her teachers opposed, but now it has adopted Western realism for totalitarian purposes.
Still, Yuliang feels triumphant, and still very Chinese, we can suppose. In the nonfiction world, she kept her Chinese citizenship and was buried in Chinese robes in Montmartre, the Paris hub of the artistic avant-garde during her own youthful heyday.