Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) was a Chinese Modernist artist known for her female nudes. Although Yuliang’s work is often praised for its lack of clothing, some of her artwork and self-portraits feature feminine fashions from the early to mid-20th century. These images not only display clothing but also reveal two cultures that identified the artist: one of birth and the other of refuge.
Yuliang’s life began as an orphan who was sold into sex slavery at the age of 14. She was then ‘bought’ by a general who made her his second wife. The man encouraged her to paint, which lead her to attend the prestigious Shanghai Art School.
Yuliang found success after returning to China, but the nudity in her artwork caused some scandal. She left China in 1937 after the Japanese invasion and sought refuge in Paris. There, she continued to work as an artist until her death in 1977. She left a legacy as a renowned artist whose work continues to garner exhibitions and international auctions.
The Yuliang Beauty
Yuliang’s art was noted by art historian Phyllis Teo as a “flux of transformations where conflicting dichotomies of East and West, tradition and modernity, male chauvinism and emerging feminism co-existed.” Her clothed figures were feminine and were created in an idealized image: well-manicured young women in brightly colored qipao blouses and dresses with heavily applied makeup.
Beauty ideals before Yuliang’s departure from China went from Western-inspired Hollywood actors to the farm workers popularized by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As Mao gained power, the farmer became both the political and cultural ideal. Bare face, tan skin, and the utilitarian Zhongshan suit became the new way of adornment for Chinese women, which was meant to deconstruct notions of class, gender, and Western influence.
“In Girl Playing Violin” (no date), the seated young woman looks upward with a closed smile while holding a violin. The woman has a chin-length hairstyle and lightly applied makeup. She is wearing a Western, billowy white blouse and black ensemble that appears as either a black jumper or sleeveless dress.
“Jeune Femme au Kimono” (no date) also portrays the image of a seated young woman, but she is adorned in Eastern fashions. The woman is wearing a black, embroidered qipao jacket over a sea green, silver-flecked dress. Her hair is curled and pinned, and her face is heavily rouged with over-plucked eyebrows and painted red nails.
Similar to the figures she created in her artwork, Yuliang also presented an international wardrobe of both Eastern and Western pieces in her self-portraits. Her “Self-Portrait Dressed in Black” (1940) features the artist in a black qipao gown with dragon detail along the shoulders and collar. She styled her hair in a half pinned, bisected style with makeup that evokes a formal or special occasion.
Yuliang’s “Window Self-Portrait” (no date) contrasts the previous piece with a short-sleeved red day dress and a contrasting pointed collar. She accessorized the look with a red pearl necklace and hair styled in victory rolls. The outfit appears in a 1940s Western style, which corresponds with her refuge to France in the late 1930s.
Since there is a lack of information concerning both her self-portraits and her other work, there is no way to make an assumption that she chose to forgo Eastern dress after her asylum to France or vice versa. What can be seen is that Yuliang and her women appear as stylish figures who have power and confidence, no matter the origin of their dress.