Shanghai was one of China's most famous modern cities; it was established as a treaty port by the Treaty of Nanjing, signed after the first Opium War (1939-1842). After opening up to foreign, semi-colonial presence, and further, accommodating refugees from the midcentury chaos of rebellion across China, Shanghai experienced a series of social and cultural transformations. In art, a new and distinctive style of haipai"Shanghai school" emerged, though perhaps ironically as a result of migrant artists moving to Shanghai. Wang Li was one of these artists.
Wang was born in the Wujiang district of Suzhou, a city northwest of Shanghai. Many artists from the neighboring cities moved to nearby Shanghai with hopes of seeking new opportunities and stability. In his lifetime, Wang became one of the formative haipaimasters. Haipaistyle is markedly distinctive: it takes subjects from everyday life (erring at times on the part of sentimentality), typically is vibrantly colourful, and for its quasi-mechanical modularity of reproduction (artists painted the same compositions over and over, and sometimes published them in lithographic form as well), it has a kind of commercial patina.
Seated on a rock that appears to be hovering in the middle of nowhere, Wang Li’s cat evokes a profound sense of loneliness. Cats, at the time when the artist painted this work, were already domesticated. At first sight, there appear to be no connection with life in Shanghai. Examined more closely, however, the subjectivity of the artist is evidenced in the painting. By portraying the cat in displacement, the artist echoes his experience of living in Shanghai as a foreigner. Furthermore, the natural setting emphasizes the artist’s nostalgic yearning for rural life. By asserting his subjectivity into the body of the cat, is the artist using art to escape from the reality?
Shirly Huilian Zhang
Hay, Jonathan. “Painting and the Built Environment in Late-Nineteenth-Century Shanghai.” In Chinese Art: Modern Expressions. Eds. Maxwell K. Hearn and Judith G. Smith, 77-93. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.