As often is the case, I found The Painter of Shanghai by pure chance. I had lent my library card to my roommate because she was utterly bored and wanted to walk it off and had no place to go except the nearby library. So off she went and when she came back, she had this book clutched in her hand. Though I didn’t say anything just then, I was secretly disappointed at her choice. I had once tried reading ‘The Memoirs of Geisha’ and was unable to enjoy it even slightly, so the description of ‘Can a concubine escape her past?’ didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Which explains why this book was left untended to for about 2-3 weeks before lack of alternate reading materials forced me to pick it up.
‘The Painter of Shanghai’ also published as ‘The Painter from Shanghai’ is a fictional version of the real-life story of Pan Yuliang, a young orphan who went on to be celebrated, if rather controversial, woman artist (a term that irritates her to no end) of China. It traces her journey from an innocent girl sold to a brothel by her opium-addicted uncle, to that of a young woman who ends up being a concubine to a virtuous government official (Pan Zanhua) at Shanghai. There she discovers the talent in herself and goes on to pursue a life as a painter. Her choice to paint nude self-portraits creates much controversy, particularly in the war-ridden Shanghai of 1930s until she moves to Paris where she attains the acclaim she deserved. Jennifer Cody Epstein, the author of Painter of Shanghai, has done a wonderful job of recreating the life of Pan Yuliang. I particularly loved the poems that are intertwined with the prose. One of my favourite is the last line of Li Qingzhao’s poem that goes:
I caress the withered flower, fondle the fragrant petals
Trying to bring back the lost time
As always, Pan Yuliang’s remarkable legacy was honored in the way it should be much after her death in 1977. However, even today, her nudes continue to cause controversy and furore – in 1993, an exhibition of her work in Beijing caused enough concern that several of her nudes were removed.
After all, it is not in vain that the famous French artist Henri Matisse once remarked “Another word for creativity is courage”.
Driven by curiosity, I managed to locate a few of Pan Yuliang’s works – ‘The Lingnan School’s‘ site offers much more insight to her artistial journey. I’ve attached two of my personal favourite paintings of hers’.
Oh, and as always, happy reading 🙂