Yan Wenliang: a life in retrospect

A rare exhibition in the artist's hometown, Suzhou, provides a deep insight into a man who made an indelible mark on China's art scene.
Ti Gong

“The Night Cruise on the Indian Ocean”

To mark its 90th anniversary, Suzhou Art Museum is hosting “Yan Wenliang Documents,” the biggest exhibition of the master’s life and achievements.

Yan (1893-1988), born in Suzhou, is one of the first generation of Chinese oil painters and a teacher of modern art education. He made an indelible imprint on China’s modern art history.

The exhibition, organized by the China Academy of Art, Suzhou Public Cultural Center and Suzhou Art Museum, features nearly 200 historical documents and 40 paintings by Yan and his students.

The exhibition hall has been laid out with a Parisian atmosphere, with unique design and French chanson music, which helps recall Yan’s time in France in 1927.

Although Yan, as a small boy, was tutored in traditional Chinese ink-wash painting, his experience overseas widened his understanding of tableau, colors and content.

One of his typical small canvases, “The Night Cruise on the Indian Ocean,” reflects a superb mastery of light and shade plus a creative arrangement of the ship. In the work Yan showed what he had learned from impressionism.

Another highlight of the exhibition is “The Kitchen.” The water-color painting depicts the cozy and relaxed scene of a traditional Chinese country kitchen.

In the painting, a child naps at the table while another plays with a kitten on the ground. The painting combines Western and traditional Chinese techniques.

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Yan Wenliang (1893-1988)

“He always emphasized the Chinese cultural root from where we could ‘grow our own art’,” says Zhou Zheng, one of Yan’s students and an experienced painter in his own right.

When Zhou first asked Yan for advice, “he didn’t look at my paintings, but instead checked my palette.”

“He told me that he could tell I was new in oil, because the colors in my palette were a mess,” he recalls. “Then he told me that everything should be in order, just like the four seasons of nature. So an oil painter’s palette should be clean.”

Even today, Yan’s instruction on the palette still inspires Zhou. “I feel I’m always benefiting from his words, especially as time goes by.”

As a Suzhou native, Yan always had an emotional link with the place where he was born. It was in 1922 that he established China’s earliest art school — the Suzhou Art College.

Throughout his life, he was dedicated to art education.

“Yan was a milestone in China’s art history, particularly in the 1920s,” says Zhang Qing, curator of the exhibition.

“He used his savings to purchase nearly 500 plastic sculptures and 20,000 books for the college. He even promoted music lessons there because he thought everything could nurture art.”

In order to better show Yan’s life, Zhang and his team have borrowed many historical materials on Yan’s time in France.

“Some of them are from the descendants of Yan’s teacher at that time in Paris, and this is the first time they are displayed to the public,” Zhang says.

Exhibition details

Date: Through January 1 (closed on Mondays), 9am-5pm

Address: 2075 Renmin Rd, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province

How to get there: It takes about 30 minutes from Shanghai to Suzhou by high-speed train. From the Suzhou Railway Station, take bus No. 38 to the museum.


Ti Gong

“The Kitchen”

Ti Gong

Yan's painting about classic Suzhou garden


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