A naked woman stands on a sturdy lace-covered table, hands behind her back, head turned to the side, one knee raised, while a group of students flit their eyes between the Chinese model and the adjustable wooden mannequins surrounding her. This scene was photographed in 1920, but not in any European salon. The picture was taken in a shikumen-style building in Shanghai, and it captured the first known life-drawing class using a nude model in China. The Shanghai Academy of Art was a private school founded in 1912 by the artist Liu Haisu (born 1896), when he was aged just 16. By the age of 10, Liu had become an art prodigy, excelling in oil painting and traditional Chinese ink painting ( guohua ). In his early teens he was trained in orthodox landscape and flower painting by Qing dynasty master artist and calligrapher Wu Changshuo, at his studio in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. Liu believed traditional Chinese art was in stasis and that rejuvenating China’s fine arts required engaging with and assimilating foreign trends of the time. His academy would be co-educational, with entry open to those whose work satisfied the faculty’s critical eyes, and welcoming to international influences and teaching techniques not previously employed in China, such as his controversial nude life-drawing classes. Based in the city’s French Concession, Liu’s academy had a certain protection from Chinese government control, despite the fine art establishment of the time accusing him of moral and cultural bankruptcy, of being an “artistic traitor”. Venturing outside Shanghai, Liu was arrested several times, and faced government calls for the school to be closed more than once, though these were resisted by the French authorities. The Shanghai Academy of Art was a private sanctum on a shady street, where young, educated men and women came to paint in the European style infused with elements of their own traditions and the unique haipai , East-West, culture of the city at the time. For many decades, the academy was housed in the same building on Rue Bard, now Shunchang Lu, a stone’s throw from the popular Xintiandi bar and restaurant complex. Today, the grey three-storey building is anonymous, lacking any sort of commemorative plaque or official preservation order. At street level, a few small Chinese clothing shops attract about half a dozen customers a day between them. Outwardly at least, the building has survived well. The original intricate carvings in the stone frontage remain, as do many of the original wooden sash windows. The families of the art professors who taught there in the academy’s final years still live in the building, which has been subdivided many times over. But how long residents will be able to remain is unclear. The building has been slated for demolition. The academy, and much of the work of its graduates, was a product of the fusion lifestyle of Treaty Port Shanghai, a city curious and open to trends from the outside world. As a true Shanghai institution, the academy also embraced commercial art – cigarette advertisements, Shanghai’s famous yuefenpai calendar girls, innovative typography, book illustrations, set design for the theatre and the fledgling local film studios – as an opportunity, rather than rejecting it as vulgar. Like so many of their kind before and since, its art students wanted to create, but also needed to eat, and Shanghai’s business world found myriad uses for their talents. Shanghai’s trademark yuefenpai posters perhaps best illustrate the skills of this generation of haipai artists, many of whom passed through the studios on Rue Bard. In the posters, realist figure drawing meets Western trends – Eton crops, long-drop earrings, raised hems, cleavages – and motifs of the Roaring Twenties happening elsewhere. The posters often pushed the boundaries of official decency in terms of female physicality. Throughout the late 1920s and 30s, innocence gave way to explicit sexuality. The public loved it and yuefenpai artists could command high salaries. Xie Zhiguang (born 1900) was a Shanghai Art Academy graduate who specialised in beautiful, overtly modern women smoking with, scandalous to some, rouged cheeks, bobbed hair and come-hither eyes. Yuefenpai was used to sell all sorts of newfangled innovations, such as Lever Brothers soap, filter-tipped cigarettes, Kodak cameras and Cadillacs, and portrayed women as sporty, athletic and voluptuous. They played golf, rode bicycles, rowed boats. The posters advertised everything from giveaways to collectibles, they were a free form of art that every home could own and display, courtesy of British-American Tobacco, Eveready Batteries or the Great Eastern Dispensary. The explosion in readership of popular periodicals led to plenty of employment opportunities for academy graduates, too. Pages touting film star and beauty queen gossip had to be furnished with images, and it would be sometime before photography filled the spaces. Ding Song (born 1891) worked in the vast British-American Tobacco art studios, which occupied an entire godown in Pudong, and was also a part-time tutor at the academy. He became a virtual one-man industry producing “female beauties” for the periodicals, and was so much in demand that he persuaded his son, Ding Cong (born 1916), to join him. As the 1920s gave way to the 30s, pigtails were replaced by permanent waves and the traditional dainty demeanour gave way to more voluptuous curves. The very look and feel of Shanghai – its street hoardings and shop shelves, movie magazines and fashions, celluloid and architecture – in many cases originated in the art classes of the Shanghai Academy. Several prominent Chinese artists employing Western styles emerged from the school, perhaps most notably Pan Yuliang (born 1895), who had been one of the first female art students accepted at the academy. Her life was the stuff of a Shanghai film studios melodrama – orphaned, sold by an uncle to a brothel, set free by a wealthy patron. She attended the academy in 1920, where she was a little more rough-edged and blunter than most of the students, but still popular. She later went on to study in Paris, Lyon and Rome before returning to Shanghai and accepting an invitation from Liu to teach at the academy. Exhibitions of her work included partial nudes, some of them self-portraits, that scandalised many and attracted government criticism but were popular among the more avant-garde Shanghai art crowd. Pan’s female nudes, combining Chinese guohua and European figure drawing, are mostly now in Chinese museums and rarely come onto the private market, but are highly sought after when they do go up for auction. Qiu Ti (born 1906) was a decade younger than Pan and enrolled at the academy in 1928. She was to become a key figure in the Shanghai-based Storm Society ( Juelanshe ), which aimed to bring modernist, specifically Parisian art, to China. Qiu was married to one of the Storm Society’s founders, the French-trained and heavily art nouveau-influenced artist Pang Xunqin (also born 1906). Qiu was less controversial than Pan, though no less talented. After the academy, she studied in Tokyo and perfected her version of the Japanese-Fauvist style, which emphasised heightened colours over naturalism. Though lauded by the Storm Society, many in China found her non-realistic use of colour hard to accept, although her oil paintings, many reflecting Pan’s domestic environment, now hang in the National Art Museum in Beijing. Other graduates switched between disciplines. Ye Lingfeng (born 1905) studied at the academy after learning traditional Chinese painting, but his aesthetic leaned more towards the literary. He wrote in a modernist style, exemplifying the haipai nature of Shanghai in his short stories describing women wearing Cutex nail polish and awash in Houbigant French perfume. He appeared often in the pages of the highly influential modernist periodical Shanghai Manhua ( Shanghai Sketch ). He read James Joyce in English and oversaw the publication of Chinese translations of Göethe, while drawing illustrations in the style of Aubrey Beardsley in Asian settings for Shanghai’s numerous literary magazines. Living in haipai and highly political Shanghai, engaging with Western art and interacting with groups such as the New Culture Movement or the Storm Society, meant many academy graduates engaged with the international ideologies of the times. This is no more apparent than in the life and work of graduate Cai Ruohong (born 1910), who found himself to be a talented cartoonist just when the art form was in high demand in Shanghai. Cai emulated the Berlin Dada caricaturist George Grosz and the parallels between Weimar Germany and interwar Shanghai were obvious – modernity, licentiousness, the uber urban and the politically extreme. An overlap of characters was almost unavoidable – fat capitalists, militarists, prostitutes, street kids, done-down factory workers. By the 1930s, many academy graduates had emerged into a left-leaning artistic milieu in Shanghai. Cai was a member of the Communist Party-inspired League of Left-Wing Artists, along with such cultural luminaries as the writer Lu Xun. Cai was to depart Shanghai in 1939 for Yan’an and the Communist Party’s wartime headquarters, where he ran an art academy named after the, by then, late Lu Xun. Slightly younger than Cai, Huang Xinbo (born 1915) was also to join the Communist guerillas and be influenced by Lu. While at the academy, Huang found his preferred medium to be woodcuts, a form that had long been popular with communist artists in Europe and then China. Lu was a champion of the form and of Huang’s left-wing woodcuts, which emphasised patriotism with strong images of resisting youth and labourers during the second Sino-Japanese war and which he was to exhibit with his canvases in Hong Kong in the 1940s. Huang marked Lu’s death, in 1936, with a striking woodcut depicting the writer on his deathbed. More recently, it has been Huang’s lesser-known oil paintings from the war years that have garnered interest. Rather than the more obvious propagandist style of social realism, Huang attempted to use surrealism to political ends with about 30 canvases painted during the war against Japan and the subsequent Chinese civil war. Whether Huang’s surrealism works as a patriotic art form is debatable, but the paintings (which survive only in reproduction) are generally well-regarded works all the same. The Shanghai Academy of Art survived the Japanese occupation and the chaos of the civil war. It continued after 1949, still on Shunchang Lu; now, of course, with the French Concession abolished. In the 1950s the academy’s position became increasingly problematic. Its raison d’être was to engage with and learn from “foreign” artistic styles at a time when anything foreign, Soviet excepted, was becoming politically unpopular. The situation became difficult; the academy was nationalised. In 1951, realist painter and sometime academy tutor Yan Wenliang (born 1893), who in the 1920s had attended l’Ecole Supérieure Nationale des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, was forced to attend weekly thought-reform and Marxist study sessions run by the Shanghai branch of the communist Art Workers Association. In 1952, the new government got around to overhauling the entire art education system in China. The Shanghai Academy of Art was closed, with elements of it being incorporated into the new East China Arts Academy in Wuxi. Liu Haisu, still only in his mid-50s, was initially made a director and later moved to the Nanjing Academy of Arts. Some of the academy’s staff did not want to leave Shanghai, retiring if they were able, or finding work as scene painters in theatres. There were few other options. After 1952, Shanghai was left without an art school for several decades. And so now, more than 100 years since the academy was founded on the Rue Bard by 16-year-old Liu Haisu, and a century since the scandal over nude-life drawing models in China, the former buildings remain for a little longer, largely forgotten, on a quiet, condemned side-street in Shanghai’s French Quarter, awaiting the bulldozers.