Naked memories

Shanghai Star. 2004-01-29

THIS is a photo taken 68 years ago which caused a social "earthquake" at the time.

There are a total of 22 people in the photo. All of the young people have casual expressions on their faces and are wearing contemporary clothing - except for the woman in the middle, who is naked and with her face turned away as if she does not want to be recognized.

"This well-known photo was taken in the Shanghai Art School in the winter of 1935. All the young people are teachers and students of Western art and art education majors," said Zhang Jiayan, a graduate of the school.

"I think the photo was taken during the course, not on purpose," she said.

In the history school, which was founded as early as 1912 by Liu Haisu, the great painter and educator, the greatest controversy to take place concerned the "nude model".

During the 1930s, although Western culture was being gradually introduced to China, traditional Chinese mores still prevailed in society, demanding that women comport themselves in a restrained way. When the news that the students had painted nude women was publicized, it undoubtedly caused a major stir.

In 1917, the school held an exhibition of works including some examples of nudes. This raised a huge dispute. Liu Haisu was described as an "art rebel" and a "robber in the educational field". Later, Shanghai politicians also became involved in protests.

In 1926, even Sun Chuanfang, the powerful warlord, intervened this issue. He wrote to Liu saying that "no one would say the art school were less than perfect if it refrained from using naked models". But Liu ignored the advice. One month later, the local government prohibited further use of nude modelling in the school.

But according to Ding Tao, who worked with Liu in the 1950s, the art school continued with its previous practices.

Nervous beginnings

The first naked model in Chinese history had appeared, in Shanghai Art School.

In traditional Chinese painting, body structure was not considered centrally important by artists. Focus was put on the spirit of the person, rather than the shape of their body. Liu Haisu felt this was a weakness.

In March 1914, Shanghai Art School opened its model painting course. But at that time it was very difficult to find models, especially women model.

The first model in China was a 15-year-old boy named He Shang (a Buddhist). In August, the school began searching for models, with more than 20 people attending for consideration, although most fled when they entered the classroom.

The first female model - a Russian woman - made her debut in 1920. From that point onwards employing women models ceased to be a forbidden area in Shanghai.

Surviving memories

The woman in the photo was called "Little Model" by the teachers and students, according to Wang Qi, who studied in the school from 1934. "We had three models at that time and she was the one most favoured by the students.

"I think she had good a relationship with the people there, so she was willing to allow this photo to be taken. Even today it is rare for models to agree to such a picture," Wang added. "But she was still unwilling to let others see her face."

Wang said the model was only 17 or 18 years old and was a well-behaved girl. She spoke Shanghai dialect.

Liu Kang, a teacher who sat beside "Little Model", is now 92 years old and lives in Singapore.

"We took the photo in the classroom during the class break because we thought it would be interesting," said Liu over the telephone.

"I told 'Little Model' we would all part from each other one day, so why not take a photo as a memento, and she agreed," Liu said. The model who had worked for about one year in Liu's class was very shy, so she turned her face away and stood in the middle of the group, with people in front of her as a kind of shield.

Later she left the art school to study at the Shanghai Zhonghua Vocational School and lost contact with the art school from then on.

Scattered by time

Among the 22 people in the photo, 67 years ago, only 13 have been identified. Among those 13, four are now dead and of the other nine - including "Little Model" - no one knows where seven are, or even if they are still alive. Most have had rough lives, perhaps more difficult than anything they had expected when posing for the photo.

Ling Lingru, one woman student seen smiling in the photo died of lung cancer in 1983. She had not become a professional painter, but rather a housewife.

Ling graduated from the school when she was 24 years old. According to her sister Ling Huanru, she gave up painting very soon after graduation.

At first she worked as a teacher in Shanghai and Suzhou of Jiangsu Province. Then she moved to Nanjing where her brother lived. At the end of 1937, when Nanjing was occupied by the Japanese invaders, she escaped to Chongqing in Sichuan Province with her brother. Introduced to officials by a classmate, she worked in the transportation department approving licences. She met her husband Zhang Jizheng there and married soon afterwards.

In 1945, Ling gave birth to a daughter and lost her job. She moved to Taiwan with her sisters in 1947. But she didn't like the climate there and decided to return to the mainland.

Staying in Fuzhou of East China's Fujian Province for a while she later returned to her hometown in Central China's Hunan Province with her husband. She was employed by Changshao Yuxiang Fabrics Plant as a worker. Because of ill-health, she quit the job after a short while and performed community work. During the remainder of her life, she seems to have forgotten painting.

Zhong Defu is the young man wearing a coat in the middle of the last row in the photo. Today he is 88 years old and has been totally paralyzed for the past 15 years.

Upon mentioning the "Little Model", he repeatedly murmured: "Died, died", but couldn't explain how he knew.

After graduation, he worked at various jobs in many places, including time spent as a reporter and a businessman. After 1950, he worked in a machine factory in Chengdu of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, first as a worker, then as an ordinary labourer until his retirement.

Copyright by Shanghai Star.