December 1, 2011

Between Extraordinary & Ordinary - A Forgotten Artist Guan Zilan

I grew up in an artists' family, entered the same art college my parents worked, but I never really knew anything about Guan Zilan - a woman artist who died in 1986 (I was in college at the time ). I seem to remember I heard of her name, but never paid any attention to it. Yesterday during a discussion in a Chinese forum regarding my article about value of art works, one person mentioned her name again. Out of curiosity, I googled her name and found her works. Immediately, I fell in love with her art. 

Simplicity, boldness, unpredictable composition was my first impression. And the freedom she had in her paintings amazes me: even though I did see very little traces of the influence of western modern art, but overall, I saw herself: a distinguish style that mixed both Chinese and Western, low toned in subject matters which are playfully & cheerfully depicted. Nothing is affected, but natural, fluent and beautiful.

Guan Zilan, born in 1903, graduated in University of Shanghai (in art department), went to Japan continuing her art education in 1927. In Japan, she was influenced by western modern art, especially post-impressionism and fauvism. She came back to China in 1930, and worked as an art professor in an art college of Shanghai. During that time she was quite active and made herself  a very famous young woman artist. Married when she was 35, she had one daughter. 

After 1949, she pretty much lived like a "hermitess", especially during Cultural revolution, she did not paint anything. Beside her regular job (based on internet source she worked in a history & art museum in Shanghai), she lived as a plain housewife until she died of heart disease in 1986.

Guan painted mostly oil paintings, in which I saw mostly "Chinese" style - a similar atmosphere I see in Chinese traditional (brush) paintings. I always have a thought on Chinese traditional painting, that due to certain limitation of traditional Chinese painting technique, contemporary Chinese (brush parinting) artists do not have to stick on traditional mediums, rather, they could adapt to western art technique and transmit Chinese art "spirit" in western art medium (such as oil painting or acrylic painting). I had this idea back when I was a student, when many artists struggled with creating "brand new" effects by using Chinese brush painting materials. The fact is, that Chinese painting materials have very strict and limited attributes and can only produce certain special visual effects, and this limitation gives artists very little room to be creative and unique. However, since I believe that mediums and techniques are not the most important elements in art, working with western mediums can be a better choice for those who really want to be creative. Oil painting (and acrylic) might be the freest art medium in the world (in terms of effects) and it really gives artists maximum freedom to be unique. Furthermore, I do not believe technique alone can define "style", Western or Chinese. So, my point is, the spirit of Chinese art can be continued in western art technique. I think Guan Zilan proved my point. 

Guan's talent struck the world when she was young (both in Japan and China), but during communist era, she stayed as ordinary as possible. People knew her in real life mostly recognized her as a housewife and a widow (her husband died when she was 55). Art in China since 1949 has been tied to politics (Communism). Was it the reason that Guan did not paint that much anymore? Or she gave up painting simply because she found passion in her ordinary life as a wife and mother? No matter what reasons, during all those decades of her later years, within Chinese art circle almost nobody talked about her anymore. After she died quietly in 1986, as she wished, her ashes was scattered in West Lake of Huang Zhou City - one of the most beautiful lake that inspired most of her landscape paintings. 

Agatha Christie said "the best time to plan a book is while you're doing dishes". I wonder Guan would think the same way. Or maybe to her, washing dishes WAS as same as painting a masterpiece. After gaining such a fame as a young artist (she was the first Chinese woman artist who painted oil painting), it is said that she was happy and satisfied with her plain daily life. I believe that, because from her paintings, I do see a "plain" women with a "plain" heart, which resonates with every beautiful detail of the Nature. 

Guan was a beautiful old style women. Is God really fair to give her both beauty and talent? (Just kidding. :-)) However, both her career and personal life stayed low-toned. Maybe, it is exactly because of this quality of being "ordinary", Guan enjoyed her life in its maximum scale. From this view, being forgotten by this noisy world really does not do any damage to her life. 


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this, yunyi! She sounds like a remarkable person as well as artist. I got such a kick out of this line: "maybe to her, washing dishes was the same as painting a masterpiece." My philosophy, exactly.

  2. Thanks! I am glad we have same view on this!

  3. Loved this piece! Very inspiring life and work...Women, esp. I feel, have this such amazing talent of being extraordinary within the scope of ordinary. A great life :)

  4. This is a fascinating post about a fascinating woman. Now my appetite has been whetted I need to know more. Thanks so much for drawing my attention to this, Yun Yi, and I love the Christie reference. :-)

  5. Ana, a big thanks for commenting and kind words!