For the better part of a century, painters flocked to Paris. Mary Cassatt and James Whistler came from the United States, Gris and Picasso from Spain, Kandinsky from Russia. Paris was the place to be even for, as is less known, for Chinese artists. It is a curious comment on China’s interaction with Art-with-a-capital-A that while many people will be familiar with Monet, few (including, one suspects, the Chinese themselves) will know much if anything about Pan Yu-lin (or Pan Yuliang, as she is also known).
Pan had two stints in France, the first in the 20s as a student and the second from 1937 until her death four decades later. The exhibition currently running at Hong Kong’s Asian society is of work from the latter period, mostly the 1940s and 50s.
Pan has quite a backstory. She was orphaned, sold into a brothel, rescued by a wealthy customs official who made her his second wife and who supported her efforts to become an artist. She ended up—without him—in Paris after having stirred considerably controversy in China by painting nudes. If it sounds like fruit for a novel, it is: Jennifer Cody Epstein wrote The Painter From Shanghai about a decade ago.
The paintings in “Song of Spring: Pan Yu-Lin in Paris” show many influences: Cezanne, Matisse, possibly Gauguin, possibly a bit of Renoir, a hint of Manet, so many, indeed, that Pan seems to have had a wandering eye. But Pan also developed (or perhaps recovered) a Chinese sensibility, not just in the use of Chinese subject, but especially in the use of line. The result is unique yet familiar, for the French art world had been greatly influenced by Asian art since the second half of the 19th century. But Pan, being East Asian, is more complicated than that: the fusion seems deeper.
It is rare for a painter of this historical significance to have a solo exhibition in Hong Kong. Pan, a Chinese painter in Paris (under, for some of the time, Nazi occupation), remains a mystery. It is also a mystery why the exhibition isn’t packed with visitors: it should be.