The Eastern Pearl of MontparnasseThe Chinese modern art movement, the Montparnasse painting school art movement and the formation of style
The French Revolution of 1789 marked the Age of the Enlightenment. The atmosphere of free criticism and debate in the salons encouraged the emergence of self-consciousness in artists in this time of rationality. Their movement was based on seeking an individual artistic style. The artists started to experiment and look to nature for inspiration. Each of these artists adopted new “ism” slogans as a movement to reform art. This notion of free thinking extended into the art scene of the early 20th
century. It can be said that the art movements from Montmartre and Montparnasse in Paris were the most representative. Montparnasse was the centre of the 1920s new art wave. It became a gathering point for artists, dealers, critics and collectors looking for new stars and painting styles. It also brought together a group of artists from the east. They shined in the Western world like “Eastern pearls”.
The Origins of the Art Movement
An awareness of national survival arose in Chinese intellectual group after the Opium War. Since the Qing court was mismanaged and corrupt, China began to “learn from the West” and introduce Western scientific culture, to try to save herself and start to modernise the nation. After the Republic was established in 1912, Cai Yuanpei proposed the “Work-to-Fund-Study policy.” Groups of Chinese students chose to study in Europe in order to save their nation and Paris attracted the most number of these students, followed by Lyon. The students introduced modern ideas and styles from popular European art movements to China, such as Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism and Surrealism. These were introduced in many life and art magazines such as Companion Monthly
, Art Monthly
, Fine Art Magazine
and Aesthetics Magazine
.Montparnasse in the 20th Century
Montparnasse, as described in Charles Baudelaire’s poem Le Peintre de la vie moderne
, “provided an indescribable environment for idlers - the spirit of independent thinking, enthusiasm and impartialism.”
Montparnasse evoked images of the Ecole de Paris films in the 1900s-1920s. At the centre of this school was a group of foreign artists who settled in Montparnasse. They pursued their own style in the international art scene of Paris. Representative artists included Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Amadeo Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine and Constantin Brancusi.
In the early 1920s, when a group of Chinese avant-guarde artists had just set foot in Paris, the founder of the Primitives, Charles Ratton, brought a large number of sculptures from Africa and Oceania to Paris. This was the time of Fauvism and Cubism. The European art scene was at a crossroads of cultural transformation. It really wanted to bring in fresh blood to nourish its cultural cells. This pursuit of overseas culture, however, started in Gauguin’s sculptures. His wood carvings and pottery incorporated Tahitian aboriginal elements, and influenced later artists. In the art article Stein’s house in 1906, Matisse showed Picasso a Gabonese black sculpture that he had just bought. This was exactly at the time when Picasso produced his Girls of Avignon
. From the contorted female figures in the painting, you can see that it was inspired by black sculptures.
The artists all looked to overseas civilisations to uncover artistic elements, and started a new renaissance. Any new technique which overturns traditional thinking or abandons the techniques of the old masters will attract interest from critics. It will also attract followers, who will crown it with a new “ism”. This was the art phenomenon in the early 20th century, which inspired later trends. Therefore, this was a “declaration period”; all the artistic movements were a declaration of an artist’s opinion of the movement. Paris in the 20th century became the site of continuous artistic experiment, and a stage for many new art movements to express their ideas.
The Chinese in the Western / The Western in the Chinese
Without doubt, for the first pioneering group of Chinese artists coming to study in France, Montparnasse in Paris was an area with artistic freedom. It liberated them from the traditional “Ideas in the Paintings of the Four Wangs”. They roamed freely, taking in liberal artistic ideas. They got together to exchange ideas at three cafés on the Boulevard du Montparnasse with a “dome” in their names, La Rotonde, Le Dôme and La Coupole. Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, Pan Yuliang and Sanyu, who came to Paris in the early 1920s, encountered a wave of new art movements.
However, unlike Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian and Pan Yuliang, Sanyu did not choose to enter the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. A great romantic, he preferred to set foot in the Left Bank Montparnasse cafés and restaurants to gain fleeting inspiration, or to study drawing the human form and nudes at the private Académie Julien or Atelier de la Grande Chaumière. This was a very alien topic in the artistic language of the Chinese painters. Pang Xunqin was another pioneering artist, who liked to depict the human form through three dimensional analysis, along with aspects of Art-Deco style. In talks with Sanyu, they learnt from each other’s styles of painting. They both liked to paint the human form in the Julien Gallery and wander through the cafes at Montparnasse. They also got to know Matisse and Léonard Foujita.
For them, nudes were a new subject. It was a technique of expression and a style to pursue. Lin Fengmian, Sanyu and Pan Yuliang were representatives. They expressed what they perceived in works. They broke off from the stiff and cold academic style, and saw the re-emergence of nudes as artists’ own interpretative works. They often drew female nudes, using Chinese techniques and material in their painting. They combine an ink line style of the Chinese painting with the Western aesthetic coordination between the human body and colour. The first group of pioneering Chinese artists who came to Paris all explored and researched nudes. They saw them as an understanding of the human body and a form of expression that went beyond tradition. You can see for example in Sanyu’s sketches of the human form he liked to use just a few strokes, in an uninterrupted style. The single stroke style was used to sketch a very exaggerated female nude.
The Re-generation and Transformation of Chinese Aesthetics
It is clear from Sanyu’s few oil paintings in the 1960s that he consciously abandoned the traditional Western use of oil painting and the canvas, and experimented with new materials. This was appropriate for Europe after the Second World War. There was a material dearth in society. People were badly off. Artists were all trying to find new materials to replace expensive oil painting. Sanyu used oil pastels on wooden boards made by compressing wood chippings. It was a case of experimenting with new materials. His expression of spacial composition employed the traditional “spaciousness”, ‘emptiness’, “black painted level” and the “flat and deep distance” of the Chinese painting. The painters like to take on the nudes, flowers and potted landscapes, and express them using lead white, black, red, earth yellow or Prussian blue. They painted very simply, using powerful colour contrasts. His valuable 1930s-40s oil painting Goldfish (Lot 7)
is his most representative work, a simple and yet rich use of colour. In drawing traces, Sanyu used a steel-nibbed pen to carve and sometimes a large pen to draw. He created a new, very Chinese integrated style. His works had a serene and dignified romantic visual effect. This use of Western style in Chinese painting was what his early dealer Roché called “the beautiful Sanyu”. He employed familiar Western subjects and techniques, and also the fanciful exoticism of Chinese aesthetics.
Another example of this was Yun Gee. In 1927, when he came from the United States to Paris, Surrealism was on the rise in Europe. Cubism, Fauvism and Synchromism, which once influenced him, were not sufficient to meet his demands for artistic expression. He moved into the dreamy, memory-like Freudian psychoanalysis style in his painting. Therefore, his works during his stay in Paris and those related to the Chinese culture all show that he was influenced by the new trends from Montparnasse.
Clearly, in the face of Western culture, clashes and responses are unavoidable. It was nevertheless the right environment for those individuals in the Chinese art world that called for a move away from Chinese traditional painting dominated by the bad practices of imitation and plagiarism. They wanted to create a new path for continuing with ink lines — the soul of Chinese painting. They re-examined the idea of “learning from nature and recreating nature”. Just as Lin Fengmian said, “The basic training in painting is choosing subjects from nature, applying scientific methods and correctly recreating objects. This is the foundation of creating.”
The Creations of the Second Generation of Chinese Artists in France
Following Lin Fengmian’s reform of Chinese painting, his students, such as Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong, passed on the soul of Chinese painting. This meant ink lines, and three dimensions. They used Western materials and techniques of expression to reform Chinese painting. In the art circles of the Eastern and Western worlds, they created new individual painting styles. Zao Wou-Ki said that it was thanks to Paris that he was able to re-examine the spirit of Song and Yuan calligraphy and painting and to reflect China. This was demonstrated in his work 22.8.91 (Lot 12)
, completed in 1991. Tang Haiwen, who arrived in Paris in 1948 and died in France, also used abstract geometrical symbols from ink-splashing to reflect Chinese painting. The convergence of Eastern and Western art was not only a balanced handling of materials and techniques, but more importantly an aesthetic sentiment and a perspective.
After Xu Beihong, Pan Yuliang and Sanyu, another group of artists arrived in Europe after 1930. They were outstanding in discovering their own artistic styles and forms in the West. Xu Beihong’s student Hua Tianyou exhibited two sculptures at the Musée Cernuschi’s Contemporary Chinese Painting Exhibition (Exposition de Peintures Chinoises Contemporaines)
in 1946. One of them was finished in that year. It was called Terror (Bombing)
, and was very typical of the genre influenced by the Art-Deco style that was prevalent in Europe during the 1930s. Hua Tianyou also took the lines of “vivid spirit” from Xie He’s “Six Painting Methods”, and incorporated them into his sculptures. He used a slanted triangle structure to represent the alarmed escape from war of a mother and two sons. He used pure and simple lines to express the feelings of the characters. In his notes, Hua Tianyou also showed that he had applied the “vivid spirit” method to his sculptures. He hoped to incorporate into them the splendour of Chinese traditional art. The Bronze Bust of Gussette
in the Musée Cernuschi by Pan Yuliang was commissioned by the China Writer’s Association to commemorate Gussette’s contribution in spreading Chinese culture. The sculpture demonstrated the capability of Chinese artists in applying “The Western in the Chinese” and “Combining East and West” in their works.
Recognition by Official National Art Institutes
It is worth noting that before the 1946 exhibition, organizer Vadime Elisseeff had already discovered Zao Wou-Ki in China — a young art talent who had not yet made his career trip to France. Elisseeff brought from China some of Zao’s works from 1943 to 1946 (including 10 paintings and 7 sketches) to exhibit in Paris. He referred to Zao Wou-Ki and Pan Yuliang in his own illustrated article as the most typical examples of “the Western in the Chinese”, with two different styles. He discussed how Chinese artists took on Western artistic thinking and techniques and combined Eastern and Western thinking and styles in their work, creating unique and individual art style and format.
Elisseeff said, “Let’s talk about two examples. Firstly, Zao Wou-Ki, a student of Lin Fengmian born in 1920, proved to us that it is highly possible for a young painter who has never left China to fully understand and integrate different aspects. It is without doubt Western art. It is only from his signature that we know Zao Wou-Ki is a foreigner. From many of his paintings, we can’t tell where he comes from.”
While “Pan Yuliang knows how to preserve Chinese-style lines in her work and she uses fresh oil pastels to do so. This is an interesting combination, using Chinese ink lines to highlight the Western palette.”
Offered in this auction, Red Chrysanthemum in a Blue Vase (Lot 5)
clearly shows the unique features of her work.
When we look back and re-consider the historical backgrounds of these pioneering artists who came to study in Europe, we can see that they were walking on a road of thorns with an innocent heart and cut a new path to rejuvenate Chinese art. They were a cultural bridge between East and West. Compared to contemporary artists who are popular in the international art community, these artists bring a historical sense of interlinked stories and the idea of things that the age cannot offer. However, the most valuable thing is that every Eastern pearl has its own place in history and charming radiance.
Moreover, in recent years more and more official art organisations have started retracing this period of glorious history and its artistic achievements. For instance, the Musee Cernuschi in Paris opened its Artistes Chinois à Paris
in 2011. It displayed works from famous painters who studied in France, from Lin Fengmian to Chu Teh-Chun, from the perspective of art history. Apart from being recognised by history, it is undeniable that the rise of China’s political and economic power has enabled a group of Chinese contemporary artists to create new records at auction in the international art community. They have also become more visible at international exhibitions. That gives one insight into the art history of this period.
The author, So Mei Yu, holds a PhD in Art History, Paris Sorbonne University (Paris IV).
Everlasting grace and spirit
Pan Yuliang’s ink and colour masterpiece Chrysanthemums in a Green Vase
As one of China’s most outstanding female artists, Pan Yuliang led a legendary life. Orphaned at an early age in the feudal, conservative China of the early 20th century, she advanced herself despite being born without means to underclass parents. Talented and diligent, she forged a path in the art world solely her own. Despite her ups and downs, she never cowered from fate’s ill-starred turns. Ultimately, she established herself as China’s Grand Female Master, attaining a unique standing in the history of art.
A forerunner in her own right
Throughout her life, Pan was a pioneer. In 1925, she graduated from the École Nationales Superieure des Beaux-arts in Paris, receiving a scholarship to study at Rome’s Accademia di Belle Arti, becoming the institution’s first female Chinese student. In 1929, on invitation of Liu Haisu, she returned to teach at the Shanghai Art School (where Liu served as Director), assuming the position of Dean of Western Painting. Her dynamism, audacious and innovative spirit prompted a new sense of freedom in China’s art world. That same year, she organized a homecoming exhibition featuring more than 200 of her own works, attracting much attention as well as spawning debate, winning acclaim as “the premier Western painter in China.” Xu Beihong, after seeing her works, praised her as a “female warrior.” He added, “Three centuries of male artists cannot match her daring adventurousness and her search for perfection and beauty.” In that closed world of literati men, for Xu Beihong to heap such praise attested to Pan’s extraordinary achievements.
In 1939, Pan returned to France, remaining there for the next four decades of her life, her works receiving numerous prizes in noted salons and national competitions in France and Italy. She was also invited to exhibit at London’s Royal Academy of Art as well as in America, with paintings collected in such important museums around the world as Musée Cernuschi, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, National Art Museum of China and the Anhui Provincial Museum. The French government even recognized her posthumously as a “national treasure,” restricting the export of her works. Most of Pan’s works have now been collected either in museums or private collections. In the past five years, only 20 of her works have appeared in auctions, of which only a few were masterpieces.
Fusing the aesthetics of East and West—A woman’s powerful brushstrokes
Pan Yuliang spent more than three decades in Paris living in Montparnasse, an “artistic crossroad” where rents were low and the atmosphere liberal and carefree. Between 1931 and the Second World War, artists settled there from around the world in search of their dream, looking for inspiration and seeking to launch a career. Among them were Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine from Russia, Moïse Kisling from Poland, Kees von Dongen from the Netherlands, Tsuguharu Foujita from Japan, and Sanyu and Pan from China. These foreigners were later hailed as members of L’École de Paris. During their prime, Europe’s art world was caught in the frenzy of Cubism and Fauvism, yet these outstanding and self-assured artists did not buckle; they did not blindly follow fashionable trends. Instead, each developed a new language fusing their mother-tongue with elements of their own culture, applying their personal, newly-melded vocabularies in representing their lives and the world, making their artistic expression all the richer. Pan Yuliang was among the most outstanding of this group. In 1954, a French film company organized a documentary on Montparnasse artists, and Pan’s part in the film was truly striking. She was also the only Asian artist featured in the film, again affirming her outstanding accomplishment.
Pan advocated distilling the essence of Eastern and Western aesthetics and fusing China and the West in a natural and seamless manner. On one hand inspired by Impressionists and Fauvists in their daring use of brilliant colours and transformation of conventional shapes, on the other she applied animated outlines and the refined spirit of traditional Eastern ink techniques. Her brushwork was sometimes imbued with force and power, sometimes graceful and supple. Her ability to master the wide range between steely strength and suppliant gentility earned her the fascinating title of “Tiexian Yuliang” (Yuliang with her steely brushstrokes). In 1942, Pan threw herself into coloured ink painting, transforming the pointillist technique of the Impressionists into fine brushwork akin to cross-stitches of silk embroidery, creating an exceptional language that was uniquely her own. Although she used Eastern medium and materials, the objects she painted were grounded in Western traditions of perspective. They possess depth and volume, existing in three dimensions, encapsulating a perfect combination of China and the West. Chrysanthemums in a Green Vase
(Lot 5) on offer this time is a classic work of coloured ink painting from Pan’s mature period, bearing the strong personality of the artist.
In this painting, Pan first delineated flowing black outlines of large ball-shaped chrysanthemums in a Chinese porcelain vase decorated with handles on both sides. Then she added red and green, providing strong colour contrasts reminiscent of traditional Chinese festivities or decorations in ancient temples and on old archways. The juxtaposition of red and green are plain yet auspicious, clearly pointing in the direction of Eastern aesthetics. Apart from that, she employed layer upon layer of cross-stitched brushstrokes, creating the illusion of three dimensions and spatial relations on the surface of the vase and the background. This unique ability is truly astounding; as former Director of the Anhui Provincial Museum Hu Xinmin said, “Pan Yuliang successfully brought together the Chinese spirit of ink painting with the texture of Western painting, displaying grace and strength in her personal artistic expression. Her compositions retain traditional Chinese concepts of leaving spaces blank, yet the blank spaces are craftily filled in by her unique, cross-stitched technique melding East and West.” Although the subject is an ordinary still life, Pan set out to create a realistic portrait in the Western sense by using Chinese tools. Never did she lose sight of the innate quality of the subject or the spatial contrast between imagination and realism as customarily found in traditional Asian art. The ease with which she wielded her brush and the confidence and satisfaction with which she made this painting can be detected in those outlines. We also see her signature at the bottom left-hand corner with the additional stamp Tiexian Yuliang, a clear sign that this work passed the artist’s own high standards. Of Pan’s extant works, only one other finished work, a graceful coloured ink painting entitled Making Up of 1961, bears such a stamp. There is no mistake that Chrysanthemums in a Green Vase was truly meaningful in the eyes of the artist.
Light hidden in the shadows, where a deep love exudes
Chrysanthemum is known as one of the four “virtuous gentlemen” among flowers. In classical Chinese literature, they symbolize elegance and purity. “Chrysanthemum is the recluse among flowers,” wrote Song dynasty writer Zhou Dunyi in his essay A Tale of a Lotus Lover. Pan was partial to chrysanthemums, she included many of them in her oil and coloured ink paintings. As early as 1921, when she was studying at the Accademia de belle arti in Rome, upon invitation by Nanjing’s Education Bureau, and she sent over an oil painting entitled White Chrysanthemum, marking her first work in a public exhibition in China. After her return to France for the second time, they feature again in her renowned 1940 painting Self-Portrait Dressed in Black, in which she wore a black embroidered qipao, leaning against the table and looking straight at the viewer. Placed beside her was a greaen vase with large, red chrysanthemums.
Chrysanthemums had kept Pan’s company throughout her artistic life, also adding colour to her everyday existence. Not only was Pan Yuliang fond of chrysanthemums, her husband Pan Zanhua shared the same affection. During the early days when both were together in Shanghai, their garden was filled with chrysanthemums. By the time Pan painted Chrysanthemums in a Green Vase, she had already been away from China for more than a decade; husband and wife had been separated by the distant seas. Painting could be the medium on which Pan poured her emotions and longing for home. Every brushstroke of these pure, warm yet attractive chrysanthemums is imbued with love, touching our hearts with their minute twists and turns and depth of feeling. The vase was deliberately placed against a plain background amidst hazy cross-stitched brushstrokes, evoking a dreamscape extending beyond time and space. This scenario reminds us of Northern Song poet Yan Jidao’s Partridge Weather: “Clouds are far, rivers are misty, home is a long distance away. There’s little I can say about missing my beloved, my tears falling onto beautiful petals … I’ve often recalled those times we spent together, I dreamt so many times of meeting you. Tonight we meet again in the candlelight, but I remain fearful that this reunion is but a dream.” Being apart with her loved one, she had no recourse except to miss him from afar. The artist poured out her emotions, using such intricate brushstrokes to immortalize her longing and homesickness. The brushstorkes captured the rhythms of life; they are themselves poetry, rendering the painting all the more touching.
Radiance and tranquility that conveys a love for one’s country
Pan Yuliang was a devotee of Chinese literature. She was especially fond of Wen Yiduo’s In memory of Chrysanthemums:
“In a long-necked green vase … as-yet-to-bloom, soon-to-bloom, half-blooming, fully-bloomed chrysanthemums … tiny pink petals of ball-shaped chrysanthemums are like the closed fists of beautiful maidens … Flowers of the East, flowers of poets and men of leisure, when I think of you, my heart opens instantaneously like a flower, glowing as radiantly as you do. When I think of our home, our solemn and resplendent motherland, my flower of aspiration blooms just like yours, blowing with the autumn wind. I praise my motherland’s flowers, I praise my motherland that is as beautiful as a flower!”
In Chrysanthemum in a Green Vase, Pan references those flowers waiting to bloom. She captured their beautiful aura on paper, no doubt hinting at her own situation, living alone in a foreign country, yet still retaining a deep longing and love for her motherland despite the distance in time and space.
Chrysanthemums in a Green Vaseis far more than a mere still life; it is a vessel for the artist to express complex emotions. It is a masterpiece that first attracted public attention in 1991, at Taipei’s Fairmate Art Gallery exhibition devoted to Pan Yuliang. The work has passed through a number of collectors in the past two decades and recently been kept in pristine condition in the hands of an important private Asian collector. This painting will also be published in a forthcoming book by the Anhui Provincial Museum devoted to Pan. The appearance of this work today in the market is an opportunity not to be missed.