Shanghai, 6 November 2012

I have mentioned in an earlier post that I had to visit the Shanghai Expo from time to time when it was on. “Had to” is the operative phrase: I was there for work and got no joy in being there. On one of my visits with my more important Boss, we were given the VIP visit of China’s pavilion. I confess immediately to remembering nothing – but then I don’t remember anything of any of the pavilions which I visited. My one memory of the visit is of one of our party who lost his wife in the pavilion. We left him sitting disconsolately at the exit waiting for Wife to appear (I heard later that having got separated from us she had left by another exit).

But my wife and I were now visiting the pavilion (with me telling her to stay close …) in its new guise, as the China Art Museum. It was an interesting visit: not fantastic, not five stars, but interesting. The collection is certainly huge; we thanked the Lord that looming closing time gave us an excuse to go faster and faster towards the end, skimming along. Even so, we didn’t finish. Another reason to go back to Shanghai, I suppose.

Starting from the top, the logic behind the flow of the visit seems to be:

1.      China meets the West and starts to modify traditional art forms using a more Western sensibility;

2.      China also tries out the new Western ways (oils versus watercolour, many colours versus the traditional monochrome or at least no more than two tones, impressionism);

3.      China also enthusiastically adopts some of the more low-brow forms of Western art, especially advertising and calendars, as well as animated cartoons;

4.      But China also tries out wood cuts, turning out among other things some dark political commentaries – signs of the gathering storm;

5.      The New China triumphs and artists turn to social realism to support and teach the Revolutionary Masses, often using the traditional models in a new guise;

6.      Art as a teacher of the masses continues, up to the present day.

Here are some photos I took – not as many as I would have liked, because there was a no-photo rule, with people in each room walking around to enforce it. I have to say it was a rule more honoured in the breach by many of the Chinese visitors, and many of the enforcers seemed to take their duties very lightly. But from this point of view I am an old-fashioned Englishman: a rule is a rule and I feel guilty and uncomfortable breaking it. My wife, now, is very Italian in this respect: rules are merely to be treated as guidelines. Thinking about it, the Italians have affinities with the Chinese on this point, whereas the English are more like the Japanese. But I digress.

Type 1:

cool hair-do …

Type 2:

best painting in the whole collection

more traditional

Type 3:

“Pink Pills for Pale People” – I love it.

China at Bournemouth?

Type 4:

Type 5:

rather blurred; the enforcer of no-photos was stricter in this room.

Type 6:

a modern painting, part of a triptych, telling the story of some famous revolutionary. If we understood the captions in this section of the museum correctly, this was part of a government programme to immortalize in paint various Great Moments or Great People from the Glorious Past. This particular painting caught well the idea of painting memories, already beginning to fade, already beginning to blur. There were several in this style.

another modern painting of some Great Moment in which, judging from the soldiers’ uniforms, the Brits were involved. I liked the cartoonish style.

The caption was more interesting than the painting.

What surprised me in this line-up was the lack of any revolutionary posters. If you’re going to have advertising and calendars, why not have a collection of good revolutionary posters? I took these off the net.

This seems a natural follow-on to the earlier wood-cuts

– o O o –

Of course, life never follows neat patterns, and the museum’s exhibits were no exception. Here, in no particular order, are some paintings we came across during our tour which don’t seem to fit the 6-phase approach I’ve outlined above:

very amusing depiction of the subway

The collector is rather “dark”. I wonder if that’s what the sculptor wanted. Had he had some run-ins with collectors?

wonderful watercolour; it captures the spirit of the man beautifully

A timeless vision of mother and daughter, in modern garb.

Given her weightlessness, I thought she was reading Milan Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being”. But according to the caption she was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” …

A painting of generations. I rather like the idea that our parents are intently looking on from behind our shoulders.

How come they have two children? …


– o O o –

What strikes me about the whole collection is the complete absence of any abstract art. In the whole museum I came across only two exhibits which could claim to be abstract, two small pre-WWII wood cuts:

Now, I’m not particularly fond of abstract art, so its absence doesn’t bother me much. But it is strange that the museum’s curators saw fit to exclude such art. And it is not as if there have not been Chinese abstract artists. I don’t know about the pre-war art world, but there have been a number of well-respected Chinese abstract artists since China’s opening up (none, of course, during the Communist period; like in the Soviet Union, social realism was the only approved style). Indeed, at one point Shanghai was a hotbed of abstract art. I can only assume that the Government still disapproves of abstract art. But why?


pix of revolutionary posters:


Shanghai, 5 November 2012

It was difficult for my wife and I not to make comparisons with the Tate Modern when we visited the newly opened Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. Like the Tate Modern, the museum is housed in an old power station on the edges of a river running through a big city. And in this country where copying is a way of life, it was hard not to see the whole enterprise as just a me-too Tate Modern.

But let’s not be too negative. Let’s just go and make our visit.

Our understanding is that the mission of the Power Station of Art, as it is cutely called, is to focus on post-1980 contemporary art, mainly from China. It is not clear to us if the museum will use just the power station or if it will spread to some of the other adjacent old Expo pavilions. When we visited they were using just the power station, but there seemed to be works going on in the near-by spaces. I suppose this gives us an incentive to come back another time to check things out.

Anyway, when we went they were holding the Ninth Shanghai Biennale, or Biennalé as the Voice on the show’s audio-guide called it. There was a lot of dross as there always is in these kinds of shows, but a few things stood out. I show some photos below in no particular order.

This greeted you as you entered the building.

In the entry hall – hugely high, it must have been the generator room – there was this sculpture; I’m sure I saw a smaller version of it in San Francisco.

This intriguing sculpture, made with a series of neon strip lights, hung in a very high well which I suspect had been linked to the old chimney somehow.

In another stairwell was this series of kites, quite striking.

This was a lovely idea, using Chinese pots to make a very high totem pole, using the high ceilings of the generator room to maximum effect.

A smaller version has been placed on the museum’s huge terrace, which by the way has a great view over the river and Pudong. My wife and I are thinking of doing an even smaller version in our apartment – we had better start collecting the pots.

Moving to the smaller scale, here is a great picture from the Italian section of the show (Palermo, to be precise). Using just thick paint the artist has created a nice 3D effect of the sea.

While another of the Italian contingent created this amusing triptych commenting on the Jesuit priests who came to China.

From the Indian (“Mumbai”) section of the show came this piece, made of pressed burlap bags. It had a wonderful “feel” to it.

This sculptural piece was by a Japanese artist. I don’t what it is, but it seems so very “Japanese”: maybe it’s the neatness of it, allied to the strict geometry.

And finally, this small piece. It was actually one of a number of such pieces, all with the same subject of Christ on the Cross and all made with bits and pieces. It reminded me of an Italian expression, “povero christo” or “por’ christ’ ” in the dialects of northern Italy, which can be roughly translated as “poor bugger”.

One final note. From the museum’s terrace one could see, in the distance, China’s pavilion at the Expo.

It now houses the China Art Museum. That’s where my next post will come from.


Beijing, 21 October 2012

For my fiftieth birthday my wife took me to revisit the mosaics at Ravenna. I had seen them for the first time during that first magic visit to Italy which I have written about in an earlier post, and many times since then I had emitted the desire to see them again. Our two children were with us, and an extraordinary thing happened to them when we entered the first church. It was as if they had entered a parallel world whose gravity was ten times that of Earth. They collapsed onto every horizontal surface and were as if glued to them, hardly able to drag themselves to the next church …

If I mention this it’s because it is exactly the way I feel every time I enter a room in a museum dedicated to Chinese calligraphy. Partly it’s the light, which is always subdued, no doubt to protect the fragile materials on which the texts have been written. But mostly it’s because the texts do not touch me in any way. They are merely squiggles on pieces of paper. As I stand there, willing myself to see something in the scrolls in front of me, a terrible lassitude overcomes me and my eyes start cutting left and right, searching desperately for a bench to sit on.

I have been with Chinese when they start to wax lyrical about the penmanship of the calligraphy on a scroll: the brush strokes, the ink, the I don’t-know-what-else. Apart from not understanding what is written, which I think makes it difficult to appreciate good penmanship, handwriting is an art form that touches me not a bit. I put it down to being the first generation – in the West, anyway – for whom writing became strictly utilitarian. My first years were spent struggling with ink pens, different colours of ink, different nibs, and cursive writing – all made more difficult by my being left-handed – but at the age of 12 came the liberation of the ballpoint pen, at the age of 17 the further liberation of the typewriter, and at the age of 25 the even greater liberation of electronic word processing. The squiggles on the sheet of paper are strictly functional to me (although I will admit to sometimes critically comparing different fonts in my word processing).

The divide between me and the Chinese on this is symbolized by the rack of writing brushes which I have purchased here in China. My rack has the brushes arranged so that they run from the biggest to the smallest, emphasizing the strict geometry of my composition. Even more important, I have kept the bristles in the point which they had when I bought them (bar a few which distressingly have fallen off the rack and had the point blunted). I find the shape of the brush, coming to a point in the bristles, quite beautiful to look at.

But for a Chinese this is meaningless. The brush is there to be used so it must have the bristles undone, flowing, possibly slightly bent from use. Mine is a sterile composition to them. They delight to keep their brushes untidily in a mug, bristle-side up, ready to be snatched up and used.

And yet … in different contexts, I have found Chinese writing quite beautiful to look at, just as a composition of abstract lines. For instance, I’m often attracted by the boards which hang over the entrance to temples with a phrase carved on them; the meaning of the phrase is of no matter to me, it’s just the composition I find striking. This is an example from South Korea.

Or I’ve sometimes seen just a character or two written on a wall which I feel “says” something to me as a composition, like in this example.

Or I have seen sculptures of characters; Chinese characters seem to lend themselves very well to being sculpted. Here are a couple of examples.

I have the same occasional attraction to Arabic, another script in which I am illiterate. Here’s a nice example I found surfing the web.

I suppose I am heir to a hundred years of abstract art, which tells me that it’s “alright” to just enjoy squiggles on a canvas as long as the overall composition has balance, a good colour scheme, and generally “works” for me. I mean, what’s a Jackson Pollock but an infinity of squiggles on a canvas? I show again here the Pollock I showed in an earlier post.

Wassily Kandinsky was also quite fond of squiggles.

Paul Klee was also into squiggles

As of course was Joan Miro, who must be the squiggler-in-chief.

And I haven’t even started on the sculpture …

So with that, I will go out and seek more Chinese writing compositions that I like … but I will keep away from those dimly-lit calligraphy rooms in museums. All those scrolls hanging there one after another are just too much for me.


Since writing this, I have come across the Chinese artist Qin Feng. In at least one period of his life he brought together calligraphy and abstract art. Here’s a couple of his paintings from that period:

Pix (except for my brush rack):
Calligraphy rooms in museums:
brushes in a holder:
plaques at temples:
Chinese characters on walls:
Chinese character sculptures:,
Arabic calligraphy:
Pollock painting:
Kandinsky paintings:
Klee painting:
Mirò painting:
Qin Feng’s paintings:,480&cvt=jpeg


Beijing, 6 September 2012

I intimated in my last post, on the exhibition “Passion for Porcelain”, that the exhibition’s coda reduced the rest of the exhibition to nothing. In the main, the final pieces were from earlier periods.  I was especially entranced by two pieces, made during the Northern Song dynasty, 960-1127 AD.


Look at them: such pure shapes, so simple, so harmonious, … so modern! And look at the glazing, one colour but with subtly different shadings, and in the case of the flask with craquelure enhancing the overall effect.

I was so taken by these pieces that I was moved to work my way through my copy of the book “Chinese Ceramics” by He Li (ed. Thames & Hudson, 2006)  and study all the pieces from this period. Here is a sampling, in no particular order




Now look at those dates again: 960-1127 AD.  These pieces were made when William the Conqueror and Harold Godwinson were fighting it out in the Battle of Hastings!

And this is the pottery they were making …

Truly, Chinese ceramics are awesome.

Bayeux tapestry picture:
Norman pottery picture:
The V&A and British Museum pictures are from the website of the National Museum of China


Beijing, 6 September 2012

Last weekend, my wife and I visited the exhibition “Passion for Porcelain” at the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square. Through pieces from the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum, the exhibition celebrates the discovery by Europe of Chinese porcelain, that wonderful moment in the seventeenth century when chinaware began pouring into Europe as ballast in the holds of the East India companies’ ships. Europeans were dazzled by what they saw, for compared to Chinese porcelain the European ceramics of the time were rough, crude articles.

Chinese potters first exported ware with purely Chinese designs

Passion-for-Porcelain 008-dragon plate

Then they started exporting wares with European designs. Some of them are hilariously bad, like this example.

Passion-for-Porcelain 006-jesus baptism plate

It takes a moment to understand that the two blobs in the plate’s centre are John baptizing Jesus. Obviously, the Chinese designer had no feel for what he was copying. Or take these two figurines, which the label insists are figurines in French court costumes.

Passion-for-Porcelain 012-french figurines

Some are simply odd when seen in a Chinese context. Plates with the armorial bearings of some English aristocrat, for instance, sound a strange note on Tiananmen Square.

Passion-for-Porcelain 013-armorial plate

But I suppose it is no stranger than Christmas decorations pouring out of a modern Chinese factory ready for shipment to the US or Europe. In all fairness, some designs have merged Chinese sensibilities exceedingly well with European-driven designs, like this plate picturing the trading hongs in Canton.

Passion-for-Porcelain 009-hongs plate

Then the Europeans started to make copies. And some of these are hilariously awful in their depiction of Chinese scenes.

Passion-for-Porcelain 015-english chinese mug

Others are technically poor copies of Chinese techniques, like these two articles which are both using the flambée technique; the European version suffers distinctly from the comparison.


Once the Europeans had mastered the technique of porcelain-making, they could cut the cord with China and make wares of purely European design.

An interesting journey indeed through Europe’s love affair with porcelain. But the exhibition’s postscript made all the previous showings “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”.  But I will deal with this in my next post.


Beijing, 31 August 2012

Take 1:

When I was a boy, I spent a fair amount of time with my English grandmother, on my way to and from boarding school. One of my memories of her is a set of china plates which she used for meals. The plates carried polychromatic designs of butterflies, flowers and trees on a white background, and I liked studying the designs as I ate my meat and two veg (making sure to keep my elbows well in; my grandmother was quite particular about table manners). The strange thing about these plates was that they had all been broken, often quite badly. But rather than throwing them away, my grandmother had had them carefully stapled together! By that, I mean that small pieces of metal had been fixed across the breaks. Here is the picture of such a plate.

stapled plate

I suppose my grandmother was very attached to the plates and preferred to keep them in this strange, cobbled-together form rather than not have them at all. But I won’t ever know because I never asked her the reason.

Take 2:

On our living room table, in a wide wooden bowl, my wife and I have carefully laid out some broken pieces of porcelain. I think they are from a bottle. They all have a blue pattern on a white background.

broken bits 001

They are part of our larger collection of odds and ends we’ve picked up in the streets during our three years in Beijing: broken bricks from construction sites, chunks of coal, a set of Chinese chequers. But our collection of broken porcelain has a special significance; we collected the pieces on the verge of the road outside Ai Weiwei’s house. We feel that somehow they have been bathed in his aura.

Take 3:

At the window near the entrance to the Opposite House, a chic hotel on Sanlitun, stand two wonderful sculptures. They represent an old Chinese dress and an old Chinese jacket. They have been created out of bits of broken Ming pottery, and all have blue patterns on a white background.


China’s old Ming pottery works are littered with broken crockery from all the runs that failed. The artist collected some and has turned these failures into pieces of real beauty. A wonderful example of arte povera.

the stapled plate:
other pictures: mine


Beijing, 19 August 2012

When I received an invitation for my wife and I to attend the 15th Beijing Art Expo 2012, I felt a thrill of pleasurable anticipation. The invitation announced that the exhibition would cover 10,000 square metres, with art works from more than 80 galleries and art agencies, from 16 countries and areas. But yesterday afternoon, when we entered the exhibition my heart sank. I recognized that we had visited the exhibition two years ago and had been underwhelmed by what we saw. I feared the same again.

Unfortunately, I was right. The art being shown was either pretentious crap or sucrose. I gritted my teeth and systematically worked my way from booth to booth. Hope springs eternal. But there was absolutely nothing worth looking at. So depressing …

And then I came across two booths which were exhibiting Russian art. This is not actually the first time I’ve come across Russian art being exhibited in Beijing. I find this art quite refreshing. For the most part the paintings are quiet, reflective views of rural life, with vistas of fields, village buildings, and farming folk just doing what they need to do. There are also some townscapes and seascapes. They remind me very much of the early pictures the impressionist painted in the 1860s and early 1870s, before they began to use a brighter palette.

beijing art expo 2012

The intriguing thing is that much of this art was painted in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, so when the Soviet Union still existed and so when art was closely controlled. Were these officially endorsed artists? But it doesn’t seem very “communist” art. Were they then “alternative artists”? I have to follow up on this. Watch this space.


9 August 2012

One of the things I love about art is to see how different artists deal with the same theme. Take the Binding of Isaac, the biblical story of Abraham who was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his faith. It was a hugely popular subject in Western art.  The scene almost always has Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac, who is lying on an altar with a rictus of fear on his face and the knife at his throat, and being stopped at the last second by an angel pointing to a ram as the alternative sacrifice.  The viewer is always led to think, “well, that was a close run thing”. I don’t know how many times the scene was painted over a period of five hundred years; could it be several thousand? Every museum seems to have two or three of these paintings hanging somewhere on its walls.

By now, my eyes glaze over when I see yet another Binding of Isaac. Yet once, several years ago, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a version I came across in the museum of art in Genova. The artist, whom I no longer recall, had caught an expression on the boy’s face that was so … real! The kind of expression you see when a child is on the edges of a “grown-up” discussion between adults, trying to follow, but not wanting to make himself noticed. It was a look I had seen on children’s faces many, many times.  In fact, I saw it again a few weeks ago during a BBC interview in Syria somewhere. The interviewer was talking to some men, and there was a boy hanging around on the visual edge of the camera following the conversation intently. Obviously my painter had decided on another story line, which I read this way. Abraham has solemnly told his boy to come with him, there has been a troubled, silent walk to the place of sacrifice, the boy feeling something serious is up but not knowing what. His father has told him to climb up on that ledge, there’s a good boy, and then suddenly a wonderful stranger appears and is having this serious talk with his father. Still in the act of climbing onto the ledge Isaac is listening intently without really understanding. The painter has stripped all artifice out of the background; no trees, rocks, or far-away hills, just a neutral monochrome backdrop. This could be a scene on any corner of an Italian street. Magic …

Why am I mentioning this? Well, last weekend I was at an art exhibition organized by the People’s Liberation Army, to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the PLA’s founding.  Naturally enough, the vast majority of the many, many – too many – works on show had a military subject. And they nearly all fell within certain clear typologies: battles against the Japanese; romantic visions of PLA’s modern weaponry; members of the Armed Forces on exercise or in training, enjoying every minute of it; the Armed Forces selflessly helping out in various emergencies; retired ex-servicemen and women; takes on the Chinese traditional landscape painting, but with army units being the human element in them; a strange set of paintings of women of the Armed Forces, but in dreamy, quite unmilitary poses; and of course, many featuring Mao and other senior revolutionaries beaming at the viewer.

As with the Binding of Isaac, the manner in which the artists treated these various topics quickly became tediously familiar. But some works arrestingly broke the mould. Consider this painting, part of the “battles against the Japanese” type.

battlefield scene

There are the usual soldiers attacking, the usual smoke of battle, the usual explosions. But our artist has captured beautifully the essential anonymity of battle. These soldiers have no faces, they are just forms looming out of the smoke and haze, a haze perhaps created as much by the fear in the defenders who are waiting with us, the viewers.

What about this one, which I suppose would also be part of the “battles against the Japanese” type.

peasant before biplane

Instead of the normal storyline of the romantically rugged peasant joining the army of the people, we see here a young peasant lad like so many I see in Beijing working on the construction sites with the modern label of “migrant worker”. This lad, who probably only the previous day had been planting rice, has now been put into a badly fitting uniform – probably they come in only one size –  and told to stand guard in front of what looks like a rather dicey biplane. So there he stands, stolidly looking out at us, with no sense of military bearing, wondering what time chow will be served.  His modern counterpart is the horde of young migrant workers in badly fitting security staff uniforms who stand guard at the doors and gates of innumerable buildings throughout Beijing, wondering what time they can get off for dinner.

And this one, which again falls in the “battles against the Japanese” type, but is part of a sub-genre which depicts cossack-type soldiers, mounted on horses and wearing vaguely Central Asian looking clothes. I don’t know enough about the heroic struggles of the PLA but I presume they included troops from the Central Asian borderlands of China.

cossacks and horses

It is a wonderful construct of blocks of colour, all black or grey with just a hint of red in the faces of the two riders. It is abstract enough in design that at first glance one doesn’t understand what it is. The viewer has to take several steps back for the painting to resolve itself, and then he finds himself staring upwards at these kindly looking horsemen from the steppes. And the sabre, common to all this genre, becomes simply a wash of black. The only sign of anything military is the barrel of the gun poking up near the face of the second rider.

Or take this construction,  a jet taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, part of the “modern weaponry of the PLA” type.

ship and jet

The artist has reduced the subject to its essentials – one aircraft carrier, one jet, two colours and shading. No sea, sky, clouds, sailors, or any other clutter usually associated with the type. Just two lovely shapes.

Magic …


Pics: all mine