Guan Zilan’s face was unforgettable. Many black-and-white photos from the 1930s and 40s showed her statuesque in traditional dress (qipao), tasteful and on trend for the time. She exuded class, calmness and affluence in these pictures. What fascinated people more was however her extraordinary gifts. Known for her graciousness, talents and personal integrity, Guan was one of the “six new female painters of the Republic” alongside Pan Yuliang, Fang Junbi, Cai Weilian, Qiu Di and Sun Duoci. It was extremely rare for artists in the Republican period to study abroad, and even rarer for female artists. Guan Zilan was among the latter.
Born into a wealthy Shanghai family in the textile industry in the early twentieth century, Guan was a bona fide ‘fair lady’. Her passion for art began with her regular exposure to fabric design patterns from a young age, and her aesthetic sense was exceptional. She studied at the Shenzhou Girls’ School in Shanghai and Chunghua School of Art, majoring in Western Art under the tutelage of modern pioneers such as Chen Baoyi and Hong Ye. Art and culture thrived in the Republican period, during which talented teachers and students abounded. Guan stood out among them and her work was featured on the cover of the influential Young Companion magazine. Full of ambition, she did not rest on her laurels. Although she did not have to work for a living, she considered her artistic pursuit not simply a pastime but instead her personal career. She was recommended by her teacher Chen Baoyi to further her studies at the Tokyo Cultural Institute. During her stay in Japan, she was inspired by pioneering Japanese artists including Ikuma Arishima and Kigen Nakagawa. This paved way for the Shanghai-school and modernism influences in her work. Within a few years, Guan made a name for herself in the Japanese art scene, exhibiting in different locations. Her works were printed by the government on postcards for national distribution. Such achievements were unrivaled at the time.
Although trends changed swiftly within the art world, Guan was ever calm and at ease with her own position. She was keen to take in new external inspirations, yet she remained faithful to the approach she established. Her brushstrokes were bold and spontaneous, while forms were free and lyrical. Her paintings often revealed a state of yin and yang being in perfect balance, typically possessed by new women of her time, consequently constructing an experimental artistic outlook that took Western influences for applications in the Chinese context. This young talented woman was a rising star in the art world with much great things to come. This all changed with the outbreak of war. Although Guan’s love for painting did not wane, she quietly exited the art sector. True to her character, she refused to work for the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese war.
Many of Guan Zilan’s works have been included in museum collections in China since the 1970s. Their appearance in the art market has been rare. In the upcoming Spring Sale, Sotheby’s Modern Asian Art department is honoured to be presenting a series of her works, with media ranging from oil, watercolour, gouache and drawing, with subjects including portraits, still life and landscape, created between 1930s and 1960s, offering a comprehensive view of this extraordinary female painter of the Republic era.
Portrait of a Young Girl: A Beautiful Awakening
Guan Zilan was beautiful and enchanting, and her elegant and intellectual presence earned her many admirers and significant following. Although remarkably feminine in person, her paintings reveal a carefree as well as decisive sensibility. Her brushstrokes showed no sign of conservatism, instead they boldly display the style of an accomplished artist. Completed in the 1930s, Portrait of a Young Girl (Lot 1028) combined the two main subjects of still life and portrait, capturing the facial features of an Asian young woman with Guan’s nimble lines. Against the background of a vase, the young woman with a well-groomed demeanor is youthful and charming. Guan’s freely expressive brushstrokes and the vibrant colours in her paintings were influenced by Fauvism, which she studied in Japan. Upon closer examination, a delicate Eastern humanistic sensibility abounds, the wild passion of Fauvism was grounded by an subtle, restrained elegance.
Comparing Guan’s own pictures from this period to the present work, the young woman in Portrait of a Young Girl is without a doubt the artist herself. During that era, self-portraits by female artists were considered subversive, drastic experiments. The Republican period saw society becoming more open from the conservative, feudalistic rules of the past, and the art world saw the first generation of female artists, including Guan Silan, Pan Yuliang and Fang Bijun, at the beginning of a new culture when restrictions on women were being lifted. Some chose physical objects and landscapes to express their ideas and emotions, some used themselves as the subjects of self-portraits, a novel move for the audience at the time. Guan used herself as the subject, a choice that reflected the awakening of the women voice in society, transforming the woman as mere object to a powerful independent figure. There is a contemplative expression on the young woman’s face, and her gaze is one of determination and resolve. Such a confident self-portrait reflects not narcissism or self-pity, but a metaphysical self-actualization – indeed the perfect model for the new woman.
In 1930, Guan Zilan had a personal exhibition in Shanghai at Hua An Mansion, drawing a huge crowd, with the present lot also among the highlights of the works exhibited. In the Republican period, the social climate was changing but it was still a bold move to present a solo exhibition by a female artist. Portrait of a Young Girl not only exemplifies her aesthetic attainment, but also stands as a testament of the enlightened attitudes toward women.
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