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, 29 July 2012

My wife and I managed to crawl out of bed at around 4 am to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. It had already started, and by the time we joined the billion or so people watching, the show was celebrating the NHS. We missed the Green and Pleasant Land, the Dark Satanic Mills, the Forging of the Olympic Rings, and – worst of all! – the Queen and James Bond parachuting. No matter, we watched the rest, letting ourselves ride along with the slightly manic fun of it all (I don’t know what non-Brits made of it; I’m British but I’ve been out of the country for nigh on 40 years and found a good number of the references quite baffling). We patiently watched as all the country teams filed into the stadium, commenting on costumes and trying to guess which would be the next country, listened politely to the various speeches and Olympic oaths, until we finally got to the lighting of the Olympic flame, or should I say Olympic cauldron.

We had vaguely followed the discussions on who might be the person honoured to light the flame, but I must say I was deeply touched by the – very Olympic – decision  to go for inclusion, to have the honour shared between seven athletes. And not just shared, but shared by young, promising athletes each chosen by a respected past Olympian.  It gave real meaning to the Games’s slightly cheesy motto Inspire a Generation. And that cauldron! That is truly a beautiful piece of design. It was breathtaking to watch those seven initial flames spread and spread in ever smaller circles until all 204 flames were lit. But I’m always stirred by design with a deeper meaning, and I loved this idea of 204 separate flames, each representing a nation competing in the Games, once lit slowly coming together as one flame: we compete individually, but we are one world.






P.S. For those of you interested in design, Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the Olympic cauldron, also designed the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the so-called Seed Cathedral. I had to visit the Expo as part of my work. Much of it I found dreary and superficial. The UK pavilion was one of the few that made the experience worthwhile.


pix come from:
Olympic cauldron:
UK pavilion: