Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 17, 2024
Amanda Wangwright The Golden Key: Modern Women Artists and Gender Negotiations in Republican China (1911-1949) Brill, 2020. 168 pp. Cloth $63.00 (9789004441903 )

As the latest addition to Brill’s Modern Asian Art and Visual Culture series, Amanda Wangwright’s The Golden Key: Modern Women Artists and Gender Negotiations in Republican China (1911–1949) complicates our understanding of the agency of women in the making of art in late imperial and modern China alongside Yuhuang Li’s Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China (Columbia University Press, 2020) and Ying-chen Peng’s Artful Subversion: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Image Making (Yale University Press, 2023). The Golden Key excavates the long-forgotten history of women artists (nühuajia), which Wangwright regards as “a distinctly modernized social category” (6), in the formation of modern art in Republican China. Richly illustrated and lucidly written, this book argues that female professional artists were once a decisive force in the art world and the nation, whose contributions equaled those of their male colleagues. To compensate for the loss of artworks, ephemera, and correspondence, as well as the paucity of documentation of firsthand accounts by women artists, Wangwright scrutinizes primary sources afforded by the robust publishing industry of the Republican era, including women’s magazines, art journals, and newspapers. The four chapters delve into the work and lives of six artists working in Western-style painting (xiyanghua) to confront scholarly misinterpretations and popular misconceptions surrounding their engagement in the art world in modern China.

Chapter one evaluates the representation of the oil painter Guan Zilan (1903–85) and her works of art in Shanghai’s mediasphere in the late 1920s and early 1930s, arguing that women were active players in “cultivating professional identities that would appeal to the Chinese art world and the larger contemporary society” (33). As Wangwright observes, media coverage of Guan exercises a consistent formula that shows paintings by the artist in tandem with hyperfeminized photographic portraits and complimentary text describing her high caliber as a painter. Consequently, Guan was typecast as both a beautiful and fashionable young woman and a professional modern artist. The author also seeks to pinpoint Guan’s agency in the formation of her public identity. By submitting reproductions of her paintings and photographs of herself to the press and presumably intervening in the crafting of her biography, Guan deftly took advantage of the flowering publishing industry in Shanghai to shape her media persona as an admired cultural icon.

Chapter two supplies a textured account of Qiu Ti’s (1906–58) career and her engagement with the avant-garde art group Storm Society (Juelanshe) by revisiting her most celebrated painting Flower (Hua, ca. 1933). Exhibited at the second annual Storm Society Exhibition, Flower, now lost, displayed Qiu’s painterly virtuosity and garnered her the only prize awarded in the group’s history. This chapter challenges misconceptions about Qiu and her career programmed by Storm Society’s spokesperson Ni Yide (1901–70) in a 1935 essay entitled “The Storm Society’s Group” (Juelanshe de yiqun). First, Ni’s assessment of Flower might have fabricated a controversy surrounding the painting in service of promoting the art society as a modernist group. Second, in this essay, Ni identifies Qiu as the “only” female member of the Storm Society whereas in reality, another woman artist Liang Baibo (1911–ca. late 1960s) was publicly associated with the group. Evidently, Qiu was presented as the token female member. Wangwright surmises that Ni’s essay contributed to misinterpretations of Qiu in recent scholarship, simplifying the complexity of her work, and undermining her significance to the group, assigning her “a secondary role, more passive recipient than active collaborator” (50). Using the case of Qiu, the author accentuates the necessity to consider how the operation of the group agenda of art societies in the Republican era, despite their many advantages, might have easily subsumed female members’ professional identity and erased their contributions.

Chapter three traces the overlooked role played by women artists in the development of the prevailing, albeit controversial, genre of female nude in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It aims to rectify the conventional gender theory that “assigns to the nude the role of passive object of the male gaze and product of the male hand” (11) and details the factors that contributed to women artists’ enthusiasm in painting and exhibiting the female nude. Wangwright first explores the advocacy of the female nude by influential male painter-theorists Liu Haisu (1896–1994) and Ni Yide, whose modernist ideology venerates the practice of the genre as a marker for cultural renaissance and expression of Chinese modernity. By analyzing images published in a wide array of print media, the author identifies a nude boom in Republican-period painting, as typified by Pan Yuliang’s (1895–1977) frequent adoption of the subject matter. The author then addresses a paradox centering around female artists’ ambitious commitment to the nude genre. On the one hand, it would jeopardize their professionalism and buttress gender roles under an objectifying gaze. On the other, their adherence to the fashion for nudes, a signifier of artistic modernity, demonstrated their liberated social role as New Women. The progressive connotation of painting the female nude was further assured by female artists Tao Cuiying (n.d.) and Jin Qijing (1902–82) in their theoretical essays, which view the genre as a means to elevate their professional status and a tool for self-reflection for not only the female artists but also the nation’s women as a whole.

The fourth and final chapter investigates the political campaigns and social upheavals that caused the termination of the heyday of modernist art practice and women’s professional pursuit as artists. As the author notes, the New Life Movement (Xin shenghuo yundong), launched by the Nanjing-based Nationalist government in 1934, popularized the tenet that women were expected to abandon their professional careers to serve the role of “Good Wife and Wise Mother” (xianqi liangmu). The situation was compounded by the plummeting living conditions and military threat generated by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1939–45). This chapter surveys the wartime careers of three female artists who turned to political activism and transformed their art into a propaganda apparatus for national courses. Among them, Fang Junbi (1898–1986) managed to continue her career as a professional painter by partnering with Wang Jingwei (1883–1944), a collaborator with the Japanese people and leader of the puppet state Reorganized National Government of China, after the death of her husband in 1939. She mounted a series of exhibitions that contributed to the legitimization of Wang’s political cause and publicly staged her duo identity as “chaste widow of a national martyr and political activist for national cause” (88). Where Fang sided with the Japanese collaborative regime, Yu Feng (1916–2007) and Liang Baibo joined a guerrilla art movement on the front lines and committed themselves to anti-Japanese propaganda and gender-equality advocates using portable and affordable media of cartoon and drama. Wangwrights reads the images of powerful women resistant to Japanese invasion created by Liang and Yu as a systemic rejection of the myopic and misogynist vision of women as powerless victims of Japanese aggression fashioned by their male colleagues.

In the conclusion, Wangwright traces the waning careers of the protagonists of the book during the mid-twentieth century, a period troubled by wars and political unrest. Moreover, she highlights “a cross-cultural standard of critical dismissal and professional neglect of women artists” (110) and posits this study in a global endeavor of recovering the worth of forgotten women artists. While the author has expertly realized her agenda of providing biographical analysis and historical contextualization to document women’s role in the florescence of modern Chinese art, one would appreciate more analytical reading of individual artworks to demonstrate the complexity and uniqueness of women’s painterly practice. Fortunately, readers can find a counterpart to this book’s broader contexts in the author’s recent article on Qiu Ti’s 1935 oil painting Still Life (Jingwu) published in Archives of Asian Art (April 2022). It interprets the painting as a response to the anxieties Qiu experienced as a woman artist in the face of such entangled social changes as the patriotic consumption of commercial products, the domestication of the New Women, and the art community’s call for “art for life’s sake.” Throughout this book, Wangwright has provided a sensitive and vivid account of previously understudied characters and dimensions of their innovative engagement with modern Chinese art world. As the first monograph dedicated to women artists in Republican China, The Golden Key itself will serve as a golden key to unlock further examination of modern art and women artists in China and across the globe.

Yifan Li
Yifan Li, PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art, Ohio State University