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Shanghai ladies.

Daniel Garcia

4.5.19 -  15.6.19

Shanghai ladies. Daniel Garcia

When, in 1947, Orson Welles called his film The Lady from Shanghai -based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake, by Sherwood King- he was associating it with a short in time but large series of films that evoked in Western viewers all the stereotypes of an ancient and mysterious China along with images of luxury, danger and prostitution. The list is extensive: Shanghai Express (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1942) by Josef Von Sternberg; West of Shanghai (1937) by John Farrow, with Boris Karloff; Le Drame De Shanghaï (1938) by Georg Wilhelm Pabst; Shadows Over Shanghai (1938) by Charles Lamont; Daughter Of Shanghai (1937) starring Chinese-American star Anna May Wong; Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935) and many others, to which Hitchcock's Rich and Strange (1931) could be added, which in the United States was projected as East of Shanghai.

Welles's film does not take place in China, and the eastern country has no more influence on the plot than a scene in a Chinese theater in San Francisco. Shanghai, a port city enriched by the opium trade, full of brothels and gambling houses, is in the title to accentuate the femme fatale character of its protagonist, Rita Hayworth and show that she has, as it happens with Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express, a past.

At the beginning of the film, a dialogue reveals the character of Elsa Bannister and Michael O'Hara (the characters of Hayworth and Welles). He defines himself as a "poor sailor" who rescues his lady in danger, whom he baptizes as "Princess Rosalie." She, no princess, reveals that she lived in Zhifu and worked as a gambler in Macau, cities in China considered by O'Hara as the two most vicious in the world. How do you rate Shanghai? I also worked there ”Elsa retorts. O'Hara asks her if she worked as a player, hoping she was lucky. She implies that not only did she work on the game, but also grimly adds, "It takes more than luck in Shanghai."

The trailer for Welles's film describes the character played by Hayworth in these terms "There was no man who could be sure of her." An enigmatic, independent, insubordinate woman, and because of it, seductive and dangerous. The fatal woman, according to Jean Pierre Esquenazi in his book Film Noir, is “a prisoner of the gaze of men and freed from any obligation, often cruel and always seductive, eternally condemned to die, guides the narrative towards collapse and ruin . But at the same time it allows a glimpse of the narrow path to a freedom that has been difficult to achieve in the context of a violent social organization. The hero is a woman! ”.

There is, I suppose, another reason why Orson Welles included Shanghai (which is not mentioned in the original novel) in the title of that dreamlike and labyrinthine film. Since the mid-nineteenth century, that city had given rise to an English verb: shanghaied, which designated those sailors enlisted by force or deception. Probably because it was the main destination of the ships that, from ports like Portland or San Francisco, set sail with forced crews. Over time, the meaning expanded to "kidnapped" or "inducing someone to do something by fraudulent means." This is the situation of Michael O'Hara who, embarking almost against his will on a journey that he always wants to abandon, is led by deceit to participate in a criminal plot. Other less prominent film productions coined the term: a short film by Chaplin from 1915 and a drawing of Mickey Mouse from 1934, are entitled Shanghaied.

And my Shanghai Ladies? A beast. This is how commonly the French term chinoiserie is translated (first appearing in a novel by Balzac in 1836), which names the artistic style based on the imitation of the arts of China and East Asia in general. Emerged in the 16th century, it reached its peak in the following centuries, as trade with the East increased. Suddenly Chinese pavilions, gardens and pagodas proliferated throughout Europe. Associated with the rococo, it was cultivated by François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste Pillement, Jean-Antoine Watteau and countless other artists and craftsmen. Plagued by Western stereotypes and preconceptions, it manifested itself in painting, ceramics, wallpaper, and architecture.

My chinery arises from the seduction exerted by some images found on the internet: luminous portraits, painted with naive realism. Iconic figures of smiling oriental youths, with interwar western hairstyles, dressed in colorful, fitted qipaos and surrounded by flowers.

Usually the attraction exerted by some images is what leads me to draw and paint, taking them as a reference and, sometimes, also to embark on something like an investigation (the word far exceeds the task, but it is valid). This investigation does not precede the works, but runs in parallel.

Right away I found out that those portraits, which had "shanghaized" me, came from particular almanacs called yuefenpai (月份 牌), literally a calendar poster, in Chinese. Now sought after by many collectors and reproduced ad infinitum on postcards and posters, these advertising almanacs were produced in Shanghai and had their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. In their brilliant chromolithographs, illustrated by male artists, we find glamorous depictions of the modern Chinese woman who, like the fatal woman in film noir, while being the object of the male gaze to which she offers herself, challenges –in her own way and by her own visibility– the patriarchal order. Modern woman who is the subject of discussion in today's society, particularly in Shanghainese, and whose echoes, those of this discussion, currently resonate in our society.

In the convulsed China of the 1920s, the New Woman, in Chinese Xīn nǚxìng (新 女性), became the standard of all those who sought a change in society. The struggle for a change in the cultural paradigm that would assign a new role to women (in a country that emerged from a patriarchal feudal system in which women had almost no voice, no visibility except as a courtesan) became a central theme for diverse interests, local and foreign, from politics to advertising. Also in the cinema, whose industry was installed in Shanghai. During its golden age, the 1930s, many of the films, especially those of leftist ideology, had as their theme the "New Woman" and its subversive potential for a patriarchal tradition. In many cases the roles, especially in their tragic fate, bore similarities to future femmes fatales in film noir. The directors, men, were in charge of pointing out the correct path for the modernization of women. A male character makes it clear in a film: "Only those who are more self-reliant, more rational, more courageous and more aware of the public welfare can be truly modern women!"

The new woman also found her place in publications, notably in The Young Companion, also called Liángyǒu (良友) in Chinese, an illustrated magazine with bilingual texts published in Shanghai from February 1926 and dedicated to modern women. Edited by men, its covers featured (with very few exceptions) beautiful female celebrities, actresses like Ana May Wong, Hu Die, Chen Bo'er, painters like Guan Zilan, Georgette Chen or Liang Xueqing, athletes like Yang Xiuqiong, writers like Hu Lanqi (member of the Chinese branch of the German Communist Party, future military leader of the war against Japan). Many of the faces on the covers of The Young Companion will appear in the yuefenpai of the 1930s, which will take them as models.

Forced by the decline of traditional patronage systems - in a context influenced by the spread of European painting and photography - and encouraged by the great growth of the printing industry, many artists dedicated themselves, from the end of the 19th century , to commercial illustration. They thus made a living illustrating magazines or novels, designing attractive book covers or drawing advertisements for newspapers. The paintings for the popular Yuefenpai were another possible means of subsistence for the artists, as well as a way to make their art known in a massive way. Introduced from the West, but connecting with a popular tradition of almanacs, these advertising calendar posters, in a vertical rectangular format, generally showed the products that advertised in a small lower section, on the sides an annual calendar and on the large central zone sometimes landscapes or flower arrangements although the most popular motif was the female figure. Initially dressed in traditional clothing and set in elaborate architectural settings, they represented ancient legends and ancestral stories. The entire poster was painted with equal sharpness and attention to detail. The merchandise, the people, the flowers, everything shone brilliantly and there were no more shadows than those strictly necessary to hint at depth. The yuefenpai had a lot of montage, and many times the advertised products and illustrated subjects were incongruous with each other. Even, especially in the 1930s, the women portrayed sometimes seemed to be made up of parts that didn't quite fit together.

Converted into sophisticated pieces of folk art, given by shops as gifts to their customers, sold in street bazaars, or as a reward to subscribers of certain magazines, the yuefenpai became very popular and ubiquitous. Hundreds of commercial artists worked on its design and illustration, who, while enjoying relative freedom, had to respect certain demands of the customers whose products they promoted.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Zhou Muqiao, using traditional Chinese painting techniques, but incorporating certain Western conventions such as perspective, reflections or fixed points of illumination, designed calendars for the British American Tobacco Company and other foreign companies. Although he regularly took his themes from Chinese legends or novels, Muqiao was one of the main introducers of a new motif on calendar posters: oversized figures of beautiful contemporary women (generally courtesans) dressed in traditional fashion. , already common theme in paintings or collections of prints.

In 1916 a group of female painters sued the painter Zheng Mantuo unsuccessfully for "painting female nudes to the delight of frivolous young men, transforming pure bodies into indecent and consequently bringing shame and humiliation to women." In addition to his nudes, Mantuo was famous for his technical prowess. He developed a procedure, called Cābǐ shuǐcǎi (擦 笔 水彩) or Cābǐ dàncǎi (擦 笔 淡彩), based on the rubbing of coal dust with a cotton ball on the paper that he then colored with watercolors, which gave great realism to the portraits without employ lines. In the early 1920s he became the most popular of the yuefenpai illustrators. In many of them he painted stylized young women with a book in their hands, short bob hair and student clothes. Those representations captured the ideals of modernization expressed by the May Fourth Movement - a movement that emerged from a university revolt in 1919 and led by the future founders of the Chinese Communist Party. Her paintings caused a sensation, not only because of the modernity of the outfits, but because Chinese tradition outlawed female education. A proverb from the Ming dynasty said: "Ignorance is the virtue of women." The new fashion, as it appeared on the Mantuo posters, was perceived as a sign of emancipation and an affirmation of freedom. Cutting her hair, the long traditional braid, was seen as a removal of her feminine qualities and therefore a shift from the place to which the rigid Chinese patriarchal society relegated women. In some Mantuo paintings there are women dressed in qipaos, the equivalent of the male tunic called changpao. During the 1920s, it was worn tight at the shoulders, but loose below, thereby hiding the feminine curves, which, together with the usual tight bandaging of the breasts and the bob-style haircut, increased the androgynous character of modern woman.

Everything changes in the following decade. In the 1930s, modernization is westernization, and westernization is consumption. The modern woman, whose visibility has become disturbing, is now presented in a very different way. The young students from Zheng Mantuo have disappeared. Already at the end of the previous decade, Hang Zhiying's study had taken over the popularity of the yuefenpai, using a sophisticated style that brought together Chinese and European techniques to achieve, although without abandoning a certain naivety, a greater realism in quality. of the representation of the skin, in the modeling of the body and in the details of the luxurious clothes and accessories. The women painted by Hang Zhiying and the artists in his studio feature strong sex appeal, more western and lush bodies, and their now tailored, sometimes semi-transparent chemises reveal their accentuated curves. The bandage of the breasts has disappeared (the bodice was introduced in China during the 1920s) and the paintings enhance its volume. The poses, the flowers that surround them (in China, flower is a euphemism for prostitute) give strong signals of sexual availability. In other almanacs, physical sensuality gives way to chic: in close-ups, as if it were for sale, jewelry, luxurious dresses, elegant fox fur stoles or sophisticated bags with art deco designs are displayed.

The disturbing visibility of women and the discussion of their role in society were somehow neutralized, turning modern women into a mere matter of appearance and elegance, associated with luxury items. "Because women were, in a sense, a disposable, marketable commodity, their association with luxury items was a natural consequence," notes Francesca Dal Lago. The yuefenpai "contributed to creating a hybrid format of gender representation in which women are portrayed simultaneously as subject and object of commercial and sexual consumption." While, on the one hand, women were presented as the ideal vehicle and the most obvious and successful result of modernization, on the other, they were discredited as frivolous and zuó (作, very demanding), interested in money and goods materials, concerned only with her own enjoyment and with questionable morals.

This sensual and voluptuous female representation was modified by the pressure of the nationalist government of the Kuomintang, which had its own ideas of what the modern woman should be: educated and healthy, beautiful and athletic, but concerned with caring for her home and raising many healthy children. strong for the greatness of the nation. For much of the 1930s, yuefenpai, showing images of sensual bodies, coexisted with others that exposed another stereotype, upper-class women, dressed in uniquely designed qipaos, affectionately holding plump children in generally Western clothing.

When in 1937, after months of hard fighting the Japanese, who already controlled Manchuria, took Shanghai, foreign companies began to leave a city that was isolated from the rest of the country. The production of yuefenpai, as well as other illustrations, was significantly reduced. Some artists refused to work for the Japanese. Hang Zhiying closed his studio to dedicate himself to traditional Chinese painting. Activity recovered in 1945 after the war, but finally the production of yuefenpai completely ceased with the Communists in power in 1949. Many artists then adapted to producing propaganda posters. Li Mubai and Jin Xuechen, both from Zhiying's studio, became masters of the new style. The kind of naive, colorful and luminous realism developed to stimulate capitalist consumption in the 1920s and 1930s was transformed into the official art style after 1949, in the brilliant posters of optimistic socialist propaganda.

This story is not specifically about my paintings, but about the images that motivated them, about what I was investigating while painting my paintings. What attracted me to these yuefenpai, even before knowing their history, was their color and their kitsch exoticism. His ambiguous oscillation between beautiful tangible images and at the same time clearly illusory. Its hybrid character, montage, even in the bodies and, why not, the "errors" in the proportions or perspectives.

The first yuefenpai I saw were the gateway to a whole world of images and stories, in which I was immersing myself and with which I was reacting with my own paintings. Stories that exceed this text, such as the introduction of lithography in China, the works of modern Chinese painters in Western style, or the fate of many Shanghai ladies as comfort women in the Japanese army.

Ladies of Shanghai, this gathering of great paintings, drawn portraits and paintings of funeral vases and urns, is intended to be a tribute to the artists who influenced me and, above all, to the women. To those of Shanghai of then and to the current ones.


Daniel Garcia

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