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Painter conjures vivid slice of old-time life
By Wang Jie

Painter Li Shoubai celebrates old Shanghai and life in its picturesque shikumen houses and lanes.

Li is famous for his vivid heavy watercolor paintings that feature detailed scenes from the old days, women lounging in patterned qipao or playing mahjong, rickshaws waiting outside, cats sunning themselves, fish frying in the kitchen. He sometimes paints cross-sections of a house, slowing a slice of life in the old red brick residences.

An exhibition of Li’s paintings and intricate papercuts is underway through Monday at Hwa’s Gallery on Huaihai Road M.

Li grew up in a shikumen (literally stone-gate) house, and his paintings are filled with nostalgia and childhood memories.

The shikumen refers to the doorway, which was made of stone and topped with a stone lintel, often ornamented with carving. Once there were more than 9,000 of these houses that were popular in the 1920s and 30s. Today there are very few.

Working on rice paper and using delicate black outlines, Li uses bright colors, light and shadow, combining elements of traditional painting and Western oil painting.

In some pictures, the house and its lane are the subject; there are no human residents.

Li paints a courtyard with low chairs, colorful laundry drying overhead on bamboo poles, bacon and ham curing under the eaves and a bird in a cage.

In some houses there was no clear separation between living room and bedroom, and only a coal stove placed beside the doors for heat.

Perhaps referring to the empty shikumen, local novelist Chen Nianshen observed, “People are selective in recalling their past as if they nostalgically miss their old lover and remember only their virtues.”

When he does populate his shikumen, many of Li’s figures are stylish young women with permed hair, trendy bob-cuts and fashionable qipao. Some admire themselves in a mirror as they apply makeup. Some chat and listen to a gramophone. One plays a Chinese lute. Outside, a vintage auto is ready to take them to a tea dance.

Li’s paintings combine traditional Chinese fine brushwork and heavy water-based colors. He adopts the chiaroscuro, or light and shadow technique, used in Western painting. He sometimes crumples and rubs his painted rice paper to create a mottled, textured effect.

“I hope to show the attitude and grace of a good life, since most similar paintings about old Shanghai have relatively gloomy tones and a depressed feeling,” Li says.

Date: Through October 28, 10am-6pm

Address: Hwa’s Gallery, Bldg G, 570 Huaihai Rd W.

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