'There was no question of painting nudes in China'


A new documentary highlights the value of a cultural exchange agreement between France and China, which offered scholarships to artists almost a century ago, writes Lara Marlowe.

When the Irish Government recently established Culture Ireland to promote Irish arts overseas, they imitated - perhaps unwittingly - a long French tradition of cultural diplomacy.

The profound effect of a cultural exchange agreement signed between France and China in 1919 is obvious to experts on 20th-century Chinese art. "For Chinese artists in the first half of the 20th century, coming to Paris was as important as it was for French and British painters to go to Rome in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries," explains Jean-Paul Desroches, the curator of Chinese collections at the Musée Guimet, France's national museum of Asian art. Desroches is preparing a documentary with the film-maker Martin Fraudreau on nearly a century of interaction between French and Chinese painting, to be shown on Chinese and French television next year.

The 1919 agreement was negotiated by Cai Yuanpei, the rector of the University of Beijing. "China selected the students and paid for their journey. France provided lodging and free art classes," says Desroches.

More than 30 Chinese artists studied on such scholarships between the two World Wars. Two, Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian, returned to China to become esteemed painters and professors. They in turn sent their students, including one of France's leading contemporary abstract artists, Zao Wou-ki, to Paris.

As a woman, Pan Yuliang was the most atypical of the first wave of Chinese painters to reach Paris. She was so poor that she had to work as a prostitute in Shanghai to survive, until she won a government scholarship in 1921. "She came out of the period when they bound women's feet," says Desroches. Known for her gentle, feminine style - she often painted mothers and infants - Pan returned to China and attempted teaching there from 1928 until 1937, when she returned to France until her death and burial in Montparnasse cemetery in 1977.

"At that time, there was no question of painting nudes in China," Desroches says. "Artists' studios were shut down in Shanghai when they tried. Pan's real problem was that a woman who worked in a man's profession was considered debauched." Today, 2,000 of Pan's works are housed in a provincial museum in Anhui, China.

Sanyu was the most colourful and talented painter from the first generation. The son of a silk manufacturing family, he arrived in Paris in 1920, at the age of 19. Montparnasse, where Sanyu settled, was the centre of the literary and artistic world then. After the butchery of the first World War, there was a constant mood of celebration. Painters, writers and models congregated at Le Dôme, La Rotonde and La Closerie des Lilas.

Zao Wou-ki, 20 years younger than Sanyu, met the painter when he arrived in Paris in 1948. "Sanyu painted what fascinated him, the female body," Zao recalled when the Musée Guimet held a highly successful exhibition entitled "Sanyu; the Language of the Body" last year. "These large brushstrokes, these broad black contours, enhance his desire for voluptuous forms," Zao explained.

At the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, a private art school in Montparnasse, Sanyu met Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyère, an aristocrat who had been rejected by her family because she was a single mother. Marcelle worked as a telephone operator, but studied drawing in the hope of becoming a jewellery designer. She and Sanyu lived together for six years, the last three of which they were married.

When the Sanyu exhibition opened in Paris, Desroches tracked down Marcelle, now more than 100 years old and living in Grenoble; the little boy who was Sanyu's stepson is now in his 80s.

Marcelle remembered Sanyu fondly. He had only two character flaws, which doomed their marriage: he was a spendthrift and a womaniser. In front of two pink, black, and white canvases of horses, the old woman suddenly grew animated. "Those were my paintings!" she exclaimed, fidgeting in her wheelchair. "They hung in my office!" The emotion so exhausted Marcelle that her 78-year-old daughter had to take her back to her hotel.

An art dealer named Henri-Pierre Roché - the man who introduced Picasso to Gertrude Stein - recognised Sanyu's talent and bought many of his early paintings. But Sanyu then went out of fashion, and his family went bankrupt in China. Until he was found dead in his studio in Montparnasse in 1966, asphyxiated by a gas cooking stove, Sanyu had constant money problems. "He was a visionary; it's a pity that he wasn't discovered sooner," says Desroches.

In 1946, Sanyu missed his chance for fame. Roché was to have exhibited his personal collection at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Among the Braques, Picassos and Modiglianis, the art dealer included four of Sanyu's paintings. But Roché was diagnosed with cancer and the exhibition was cancelled. It took 51 more years for Sanyu to be "discovered". From 1948 until 1950, the artist lived with the Vogue photographer Robert Frank in New York. To repay Frank's kindness, Sanyu left 19 paintings with Frank when he returned to Paris.

Frank attempted to donate his Sanyu collection to the Pompidou Centre in the 1980s, but they declined. In 1997 he auctioned the canvases to establish a foundation in memory of his daughter, who had died of leukaemia. "The Chinese Matisse" was suddenly highly sought after. "Yet again, it was the Americans who made the discovery, even if it hurts our French pride," Desroches sighs.

Sanyu's style changed after his US stay. "He entered into abstraction, into the wide open spaces of America," Desroches explains. "He understood what was happening in the US; he had already left Paris in spirit. These canvases were precursors of what Andy Warhol and the Factory would do 20 years later."

Like Sanyu, Zao Wou-ki, now 84, was from a wealthy family. Unlike Sanyu, he has known extraordinary success in France, where he is a member of the Académie Francaise and was the subject of a major retrospective at the Jeu de Paume in 2003. By the time Zao arrived in Montparnasse in 1948, the epicentre of artistic and literary creation had shifted to New York, where it would remain for the rest of the century. Unlike Sanyu, Zao felt no need to do figurative painting. He managed to create, in the words of his fellow academician Francois Cheng, "for the first time, a true symbiosis . . . between the West and China".

"From Western painting, Zao learned the exaltation of colour and the importance of light," says Jean-Paul Desroches. "But he retained the lyricism and abstraction of Chinese art. The 1950s were the period of Jackson Pollock and action painting. In Chinese tradition, one paints quickly; Zao was perfectly suited."

For close to 40 years, Marxist China denied its own cultural heritage, much of which had been spirited away to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek. The Cultural Revolution was a terrible time for artists, who were persecuted, murdered and in some cases committed suicide.

Today's Chinese artists have little interest in the archaeological treasures unearthed by Chairman Mao, but they are fascinated by the links established between their country and Paris in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Xu Beihong now has three museums dedicated to him. The emigrant painters' work is snapped up by Chinese collectors at auction; one of Sanyu's Matisse-style paintings sold for $900,000 (€700,000) last year in Hong Kong.

The Paris École des Beaux Arts recently acted as consultants for the building of an artists' village in West Beijing, and it is there, among the young painters who take pride in their cosmopolitan modernity, that Desroches and Fraudeau will complete their documentary.

The cultural exchange started in 1919 has come full circle. But Desroches sees a far greater role for China in the near future. Just as the second World War left Europe sad and in ruins, he believes the confrontation between militant Islam and the US is now sapping America's energy. With incredible dynamism, on the sidelines of America's "War on Terror", he predicts that Shanghai will replace New York. "One-third of all of the building cranes in the world are in Shanghai. They inaugurate a new skyscraper every three or four days. This is the place of the future, in technology and in the arts."