The goal of this dissertation is to enrich scholarly understanding of the transformation in practice and social role of traditional Chinese painting in the twentieth century by focusing on the work of Pan Tianshou (1897-1971). In part because the historical and art historical narratives of the three periods we examine have been so fiercely contested, much work still needs to be done in understanding the personal and environmental factors that made possible the great innovations of China’s major cultural figures. Pan lived during the period when China was most actively and creatively engaging with the forces of modernity. Although inclined by temperament to the classical arts of the past, he nonetheless met the circumstances of each era head-on, throwing himself into the task of redefining Chinese art for the modern age.
This study investigates how Pan engaged with cross-cultural exchange, how he reevaluated traditional Chinese painting, and how he tried to update Chinese painting by achieving his unique artistic style. In particular, the Sino-Japanese relationship, which featured prominently in his education, helped Pan begin considering the importance of national identity. His definition of innovation was based in part upon a sense of national identity. At the same time, however, Pan Tianshou said that if tradition cannot pave the way for future artistic possibilities, then it is a dead tradition. To Pan, tradition was an inherited culmination of characteristics of masters from the past, but he argued that tradition and innovation are inseparable characteristics of art. His modern transformation of artistic consciousness and modern sense of identity enriched practices and definitions of traditional Chinese painting in the twentieth century.
This dissertation primarily hopes to offer an alternative perspective on modernity in Pan Tianshou’s oeuvre as a case study of traditionalist efforts in modern Chinese art. Moreover, it tries to develop a new understanding of some of the results of the rich artistic and intellectual intersections among China, Japan, and the West in the early twentieth century. To be specific, Pan dealt with traditional subjects—bird-and-flower and landscapes—but his constructive composition, emphasis on flat painting surfaces, application of expressive ink tonality with his fingers and hands, and use of animal subjects as self-reflective images are imbued with a modern sensibility. These accomplishments were part of Pan’s larger mission of rediscovering traditional Chinese painting, establishing principles for Chinese painting that were suitable to contemporary art, and laying claim to modernity in the global world. This dissertation, by examining a little-studied aspect of Pan Tianshou’s rediscovery of traditional Chinese painting against the background of three distinct periods of modern history, contributes to research on the cultural complexities of twentieth-century China.