Qiu Ti: Chinese Female Modernist Painter

A review of Qiu Ti’s Contributions to Juelanshe and the Intersection of Modernist Ideology, Public Receptivity, and Personal Identity for a Woman Oil Painter in Early Twentieth-Century China, by Amanda Sue Wright.

Qiu Ti (1906-1958) was the only officially recognized female member of the influential artist society, the Juelanshe (Storm Society), and yet, to date, little scholarship has addressed her work. In Amanda Sue Wright’s dissertation, Qiu Ti’s Contributions to Juelanshe and the Intersection of Modernist Ideology, Public Receptivity, and Personal Identity for a Woman Oil Painter in Early Twentieth-Century China, the author has uncovered an extraordinary narrative within the twentieth-century modernist project in China and recovered a female modern oil painter from the margins of history and scholarship.

As Wright notes in her introduction, the artist and her work have been reduced to a point of reference, often brought up when discussing the work of her better-known husband, the Paris-trained oil painter Pang Xunqin (1906-1985). Most familiar to scholars is the oft-quoted 1993 essay by Ralph Crozier (“Post-Impressionism in Pre-War Shanghai: The Juelanshe (Storm Society) and the Fate of Modernism in Republican China,” in John Clark, ed., Modernity in Asian Art. Sydney: Wild Peony, 1993). Crozier’s essay analyzes a review by Juelanshe co-founder Ni Yide (1901-1970) of the group’s second exhibition in 1933 as a reflection of a more broadly held view of modern aesthetics in Shanghai. Based on Ni’s text, Crozier concludes that, “The biggest controversy [around the exhibition] arose over a prize-winning entry by the only woman member, Qiu Ti (Mrs. Pang Xunqin). Reproduced in several magazines (unfortunately not in color), what disturbed critics and casual onlookers was the fact that in a decorative picture of a potted plant she had painted the leaves red and the flowers green” (p. 146). As a result, the few scholars who have analyzed Qiu Ti’s work, such as Julia Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, interpret it as polemical due to its palette, and Qiu Ti’s artistic contribution to the modernist project is reduced to her choice of color.  By engaging primary sources and more recent scholarship on the construction of womanhood and the female identity in Republican China, Wright offers a new reading of Qiu Ti’s work, one that is immersed in the ideological nature of Juelanshe’s modernist project, and places that reading within a thoughtful consideration of the issues facing women and women artists during this time period.

Chapter 1 focuses on identity issues surrounding women in China during the early twentieth century. Wright reconstructs Qiu Ti’s little-known biography and incorporates new evidence from primary documents and interviews with family and known associates. By examining the tension between the various conceptions of the ‘new’ or ‘modern’ woman during this period, the Qiu Ti rediscovered by Wright becomes a more nuanced and fascinating artist whose worked faced different obstacles and critiques from that of her male colleagues. Wright concludes this chapter with a close visual analysis of the early photographs of the artist reproduced in journal announcements and exhibition reviews to re-imagine how the artist viewed herself and her role as a woman, artist, and wife. Through Wright’s re-contextualization of these photographs and their self-fashioning function, Wright sheds light upon Qiu Ti’s conceptualization of gender and how it was shaped by the discourse of the period.

In the second chapter, Wright completes a close examination of the 1933 painting Flower and its exhibition. Through a close consideration of primary sources, she unravels the contradictory nature of Juelanshe’s ideology and constructs a new narrative that reveals how Ni Yide and other male contemporaries viewed her work as a female artist. She begins her investigation by addressing the not-so-controversial color choice. A well-known flower from Qiu Ti’s home province of Fujian (the coleus flower) in the painting was not a fauvist-style reversal of color but visually true to the plant’s natural form. Therefore, by awarding Qiu Ti the prize of the exhibition, the group was not singling out her iconoclastic style or bold choice of color, but rather, offering financial support to her young household. Examined this way, the money from the exhibition prize encouraged and subsidized the work of her husband, Pang Xunqin.

Chapter 3 moves away from the 1933 controversy and illustrates how Qiu Ti and other female painters participated in the larger discourse of Chinese modern art. Wright surveys and reassesses the choice of the female nude as subject matter by twentieth-century painters in China. She engages the scholarship of David Clarke (“Iconicity and Indexicality: The Body in Chinese Art,” Semiotica 155-1/4 (2005): 229-248), revealing the limited scope of his project. As Wright notes, Clarke’s article argues that images of a female nude are both a subject and symbol of modernity in Chinese art, but his work only addresses depictions of the subject by male artists. Wright takes Clark’s investigation a step further by analyzing and comparing paintings of nude female figures by both male and female artists. She finishes her discussion with an examination of contemporaneous essays on the representation of the female nude by two Chinese women writers, Tao Cuiying and Jin Qijing. As Wright notes, in both essays the authors discuss the nude as a way for female artists to engage their artistic peers and elevate the position and roles of women in society. Through her study of Qiu Ti’s nudes, nudes by her female peers, and the aforementioned articles, Wright both furthers and refines Clarke’s earlier analysis by highlighting how these female artists transformed the subject into an opportunity to engage and participate in the national and modern artistic debates of the time.

The fourth chapter returns to the construction of the ‘new’ or ‘modern’ Chinese women and brings that project into the 1930s. Wright begins with a thorough examination of one of the few extant paintings by Qiu Ti, her Still Life of 1935. The author undertakes a detailed iconographical reading of the work to reveal that rather than just a random assortment of everyday objects, the painting is, in fact, a snapshot of Qiu Ti’s domestic environment and deeply invested in her understanding of the female identity in modern China. Wright contextualizes the work within the Republican government’s newly implemented reforms in 1934  to both curtail extravagant  spending and promote national products such as the New Life Movement (xin shenghuo yundong新生活运动) and the Women’s National Products Year (funü guohuo nian妇女国货年). Utilizing the scholarship of Carrie Waara and Shu-mei Shih (“The Bare Truth: Nudes, Sex, and the Modernization Project in Shanghai Pictorials,” and, “Shanghai Women of 1939: Visuality and the Limits of Feminine Modernity,” respectively, both in Jason Kuo, ed. Visual Culture in Shanghai 1850s–1930s. Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2007), Wright shows how Qiu Ti’s life and work were affected and altered by the shifting perceptions of, and expectations placed upon, Chinese women.

Wright concludes with a brief analysis of Qiu Ti’s life after the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the ways in which those years and subsequent scholarship resulted in Qiu Ti’s role in the modernist project being diminished. She compares what happened to Qiu Ti with female artists both in China and elsewhere. Though Wright’s investigation confirms the significant part Qiu Ti played in the history of Chinese modernist art, further investigation into more female artists and modernist projects is still needed to understand the complexity of the period.

Amanda Sue Wright’s dissertation conveys a rich understanding of both the Juelanshe and other women painters of the modern period. Her study demonstrates that though huge limitations were placed upon female artists because of their gender, they furthered the modern projects of their time period for both male and female artists. Wright’s research reveals how these artists and their work functioned in, and responded to, the needs and ideologies of the early twentieth century. She also investigates the subtleties behind the complicated relationship between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, specifically the correlation between paintings and visual culture. However, most importantly, her writing has reclaimed and reconfigured Qiu Ti’s complex role in the project of Chinese modernity.

Madeline L. Gent
Department of Art History and Archaeology
University of Maryland, College Park
mgent@umd.edu

Primary Sources
Funü zazhi 妇女杂志 [Ladies’ Journal], Shanghai: Funü zazhi she, 1915-1931.
Liangyou huabao 良友画报 [Young Companion], Shanghai: Jijiang jintao yingyin, 1926-1938.
Meishu shenghuo 美术生活 [Arts & Life], Shanghai, 1934-1937.
Shidai huabao 时代画报 [Modern Miscellany], Shanghai, 1929-1937.
Yishu xunkan 艺术旬刊 [L’Art], Shanghai: Mo she, 1932-1933.

Dissertation Information
University of Kansas. 2011. 172 pp. Primary Advisor: Marsha Haufler (Weidner).

Image: Butterfly Hu Performs in “Three Sisters”, Meishu shenghuo 2 (May 1934).

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