ARTIST Liu Manwen appears surprisingly young for her age.
Clad in a black dress with a brilliantly hued silk scarf, Liu still keeps a slender figure and delicate skin in her 50s.
Liu’s solo exhibition titled “Archives of Pretty Women,” featuring a cluster of her latest canvas depicting famous female movie stars of Old Shanghai, was unveiled at No. 123 Hunan Road last weekend.
The theme is not new, as it’s been portrayed in various forms including movies, novels and television series. Adding new elements to this subject demands both courage and some creativity from the artist.
As a woman, Liu might find it easy to echo her heart with the experience of these ladies in the past.
“The life experience of some, as many might know, was legendary or sad, especially under a male-dominant society at that time,” Liu said, “But what I am more interested in is how to present these familiar images through a particular visual power to the viewers.” She is also the chairwoman of the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute Art Museum.
In fact, the image of these famous film stars have become the symbol of the prosperous Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s, and their charming on-screen smiles were permanently carved into a cultural memory.
The series of Liu’s Pretty Women borrows from the existing portrait stills to present highly enlarged facial features on big canvases to form a strong visual impact on one hand, while on the other hand maintaining the light and shadow of that time.
“I did a lot of reading of the old materials and pictures of the Old Shanghai, and I also watched some old movies,” Liu said, “For example, one of my paintings was based on a piece of old broken newspaper that I saw at the library. It reported the casual gathering of the six most famous female movie stars at that time. But the photo is so vague that it almost lost some details.”
Liu revived the picture under her brushstrokes, as seen through her eyes, summoning the fleeting moment.
During the course of transforming the video or photo image into painting, she didn’t intentionally change the optical effect, but purposely applied the reality of light and shadow to replace the reality of structure. She even infused her canvas with a deep blue hue and illusionary touch filled with turbulence and suspension.
Liu also actively absorbed the digital picture’s methods of peeling off color layers and simplification, gradually presenting the development of several color levels from the brightest to the darkest. In terms of the whole composition, the artist reveals the relationship between color and light through the realistic painting method, but pursues the feel of a thin and translucent unified hue, as if the effect of light and color are delivered by transparent film.
As a female artist with a southern origin, Liu has a sensitive and exquisite way of perceiving art. However, her long-term stay and professional education in the north at Luxun Academy of Fine Arts endow her paintings with a profuse and forceful expression.
Thus, like few other woman artists, Liu does not prefer the bright-colored depiction of flowers that symbolizes sex and is not obsessed with the depiction of an aesthetic life. Actually, the life represented in her works is mostly a depiction of her own life in the early stage.
“Yes, I rose to an early fame in the art community through my series of Insipid Life, which focuses much on my personal life at that time,” she said.
But when repeatedly depicting herself, her family, husband and child in the series, she in a sense was confiding her own reality to viewers. Her own face became the major image in this series — she appears in different postures in different time and space. The expression in her eyes hides her introspection about her family and life — insipidity conceals helplessness, and sacrifice is mixed with struggle.
Sometimes the artworks do speak for the inner calling of the artist.
“Yes, I felt quite depressed during that period,” she recalled, “There was something wrong with my life, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. I wanted to change to a new environment that could give me a new life, so I came to Shanghai in 2003.”
Her move to Shanghai was a big turn in her life. Although she shied away from mentioning the reason for her divorce, she stepped out of the shackles that had bounded her and her art.
“I never regretted what I have decided for my life. Of course, the big cosmopolitan city inspired a new series under my brushstrokes.”
If her previous works emphasized her individual life experiences and comprehension, her perspective later switched to the width of society and the depth of history.
“It is always easier said than done,” she said with a smile, “You know how hard it would be for an artist’s transition. You just haven’t seen how many paintings that I have thrown away at my studio.”
Liu said that some of the paintings in this exhibition will also go to her solo exhibition in Rome next month.
“I have many other female celebrities on the list for my next renderings,” she said, “These women appear so elegant and beautiful on the surface, but life is not about that. We only remember their permanent, charming smiles, but my paintings will give a kind of nostalgia and lament towards them, especially under a male-dominant society at that time.”
When asked whether there is any secret to how she has kept her youthful appearance, she gives a simple reply.
“Thank you for your compliments. Actually I don’t do anything special. Once you think you are young and beautiful, just repeat them in your mind. That really works, at least for me. Yes, I am still single, because I haven’t fully enjoyed the freedom and joy of being a single lady.”