Pan Yuliang had well perceived the objectifying views subjugating female bodies in art and voiced out her takes through virtuoso artistic experiments since the late 1930s. As a woman artist in the early 20th century, she persistently inputted impetus to unravel the patriarchal practices over women figure paintings. Women subjects in her crafts are enlivened with a higher degree of ascendance, autonomy and agency. They are not only muses or nude models to be portrayed, but also artists who portray and perform.

A Studio (1940), Oil on canvas, 72 x 53 cm.

In Pan’s oil paintings about the open studio in Montparnasse, Paris, she paid fewer interests in models but artists, especially women artists, who were expressing their creativity and opinions through artistic productions with brushes and paints. Not limited to images of women gaining ascendance in artistic controls, she imbued agency in her nude female figures that skew scopophilic pleasure. In Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, she explained the cinematic effects or viewing that allow the voyeuristic gaze to derive pleasure by objectifying female figures. Although the theories came later than academic painting practices, it serves as a gateway to tap into how the objectification enacts on the pictorial surface. Academic painting functions in a similar fashion, as cinematic viewing, with the refined tonality, chiaroscuro, posture and scene setting to activate the objectification. In a way to defy, Pan chucked away her academic chiaroscuro and followed an eclectic style with the impressionist, pointillist and Chinese ink sketch approaches to subdue the naturalism, which may enable and invoke pleasure for the voyeuristic gaze.

A Studio (Undated), Oil on canvas, 15 x 22 cm.

Women Peeping at the Window (1968), Oil on canvas, 176 x 90 cm.

The pleasurable viewing experience to elicit eros is disrupted by the autonomy of the female figures. They are rather too mischievous to be those typical demure nude models. Pan ensured that autonomy for her women, who express high subjectivity that seem unable to be contained by an objectifying space. A group portrait of Women Peeping at the Window (1968) is playfully attuned with the relationship of viewing and being viewed. The female figures convey curiosity with looking out and hence engender agency by redirecting the voyeuristic gaze to the window’s scene, which, however, is a mystery covered by curtains and wiped out completely. The women subjects play with our curiosity by only opening a small space of the view, yet wiped out (or liubai 留白) by the artist, taking control of what audiences can observe and construe. Audience’s uncontrollability here reflects the subjectivity and agency those subjects performed and playfully echoes the uncontrollability of the female figures being objectified and viewed in the tradition nude paintings. It is a reverse of the viewing relationship amusing manoeuvred by the artist. Stylistically, the female figures coupled with the flatness and inaccurate figure delineation typical of the ink medium that interrupts the voyeuristic pleasure. Similar to the Freudian approach Mulvey utilised as a pleasurable intervention, Pan lands the centre of the whole painting at around the model’s genitalia, which reinforces the castration anxiety and in turn destroys the scopophilic source of pleasure for audiences.

A Girl and Red Roses (1946), Oil on canvas, 120 x 78 cm.

In 1938, when Pang resigned from her teaching position in China and returned to Montparnasse, she enjoyed her free time and free rein in artistic exploration. Specifically, she produced a significant amount of works on female portrait paintings: group portraits, self-portraits as well as nude figure paintings. Dissimilar to her life-paintings practised in National School of Fine Arts in Paris, which instilled conceptions on depicting bodies into Pan, though mostly confined to nudes of European Caucasians. She diverged from the Parisian discourses of art and painted on female models of colour in the nude, pioneering the discussion of intersectionality. Inspired by Henri Matisse’s odalisque art in the 1920s, Pan explored her figure paintings with women of colour, such as Sweet Dreams (1940) and A Girl in Red Roses (1946) in a similar composition, with which she challenged the stereotype of the European Caucasian body being the idealised and others being less desirable or should be shrouded, overlooked and excluded. Since the 1940s, she experimented a large series of nude paintings of Chinese women in ink on paper. The images came unprecedented to traditional ink paintings, which seldom focuses on woman portrait, rarely presents nudity and usually depicts flatness. Pan’s women figures are outlined with simple textural stroke and positioned in various western painting inspired perspectives to convey volume, such as foreshortening. They were rendered in a defiant contrary to these three conventions, conveying a new perspective to represent modern Chinese women. A Chinese intellectual, Chen Duxiu, extolled her experiments and regard her outlining as a new ink sketch (xinbaimiao 新白描) to the traditional eighteen styles. 

Sweet Dreams (1940), Oil on canvas, 53 x 73 cm.



Self-Portrait in Red (c. 1940), Oil on canvas, 90 x 64 cm.

One of Pan Yuliang’s important quests in art production is the portrayal of self. She has created a significant number of self-portraits. Many of them are showing multi-facets of herself through various costume, gesture and environment. There are different Pan Yuliang who shows emotionlessness, seriousness, joy, sombreness, sensuality or even elegance. The self-performance of her in engaging with different persona reinforces the humanistic nature of the subject. Her confrontational gaze towards audiences shows no sign of dodging and retreat, seeming to open up a dialogue with audiences about her story and philosophy. The intruding gaze she holds interrupts with the voyeuristic gaze of audiences, dispelling the objectifying gazes on her body and self-portraits. Pan Yuliang’s exhibition in Asia Society is groundbreaking at gathering so many of her painting at once in Hong Kong, as her first solo show in retrospective ever, bringing fresh air to the studies of the 20th-century Chinese woman artists. 

Artist Self-Portrait (1949), Oil on canvas, 60 x 72.5 cm. (Not in the exhibition)


Asia Society Hong Kong