Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shanghai - Art of the City at the Asian Art Museum

A Shanghai missionary (quoted in Stella Dong’s book on Shanghai) railed “If God lets Shanghai endure, he owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.” Shanghai- a city that was once synonymous with decadence and crime, a name that conjured visions of sin and sex, brothels, babes, laissez-faire capitalism and colonial privilege. The city was (and is) cosmopolitan and dynamic, the place where East met West, sometimes in a creative synthesis and sometimes in a confrontation that ended in tragedy. Yet, while the concessions forced the opium trade on the Chinese, it also opened the country to new ideas, among them nationalism, democracy, the equality of women, and Communism.

 The Bund, within the premises of Russell and Company. by Chowkwa. 1897. Oil on Canvas. Peabody Essex Museum. Courtesy Asian Art Museum

While the exhibit gives you a good overview of Shanghai, all cleaned up and ready for the 2010 Expo, it does not give you a good image of Shanghai's dirty, dangerous and difficult past. The elegantly calm oil painting of the Bund (see above) does not begin to explain what was really happening. The concessions forced from the declining Celestial Empire by the European powers opened the country to the opium trade, which decimated the Chinese while creating vast fortunes for the privileged. The Taiping revolt and the breakdown of Manchu control sent thousands flooding into Shanghai. Slums, brothels, crime, corruption and exploitation of the Chinese became commonplace; the racism, so casually displayed by the Imperialist powers added another layer of misery. What I looked for - and didn't see in this portion of the exhibit - was a visual of that side of Shanghai. The Buddhists say that the jewel of the lotus grows out of mud. In Shanghai, there was plenty of mud and it didn't just come from the river. Show me!

Evening Glow on the Huangpu River, 1955. Shen Roujian. Shanghai History Museum. Courtesy Asian Art Museum. 

But, while the western powers exploited China, they also opened the country to Western ideas in art (among other things). In 19th century Europe, art was revolutionized by the Japanese prints than originally came wrapped around trade goods made for the European market.

Something similar happened in China and the first part of the exhibit shows Chinese artists struggling – not always successfully – to master oil painting, Western perspective and genre painting. Guan Liang could be a student of Cezanne and the two pieces by Guan Zilan, one of the few successful women artists of the period, could take place of pride in many European museums. The point of this part of the exhibit is not that they are all great works of art; the point is that China’s traditional culture, including painting, was undergoing rapid, even revolutionary change. What is shown here is, of necessity, only a tiny fragment of the history of the contacts between East and West - sometimes there was a significant artistic synthesis into a new art form (as in film or posters). At other times, the combinations were much more awkward and jarring.

One of the more ironic pieces in the exhibit is a traditional scroll painting by Ya Ming (1924). The gentlemen so elegantly posed in the painting are two of the most powerful chieftains of the Shanghai underworld. Their realistic faces are at odds with the traditional brushwork on silk.  But, looking at this elegant ink scroll of two respectable gentlemen, would you be able to guess their business? Is there any indication of the cruelty, disease and vicious nature of the criminal underground there? If Shanghai, Art of the City is telling the history of the city through its arts, I want to see it all, high, low and somewhere in-between.  I didn't see it and I wanted to see it. Maybe China has yet to produce a Coppola capable of visualizing both the reality and the myth of pre-revolutionary Shanghai. Shanghai was notorious for it's brothels, babes and decadence. I wanted to see an opium pipe or two, a photo of the slums, even a small display of the items used in foot binding.

So, show me!

One area that did work was the selection on the graphic art of the 1930's. China was under attack by the Japanese and human misery had spiraled into the stratosphere. Both the Nationalist and the Communist Party were organizing in Shanghai. For a short time, they were even allies!

Lia Hua, Roar, China. (1907-1994). Woodcut on paper. Collection of the Lu Xun Memorial Hall. Courtesy of the Asian.

The graphic arts collection is fascinating for these artists were combining traditional Chinese colors and art deco with commerce to produce pieces that are still fresh and vibrant.  I’m not a big fan of furniture but the placement of the furniture exhibit with its sumptuous pieces of Art Deco elegance– next to the revolutionary posters and wood cuts of 1930’s China – packs a visual punch. One China is wealthy and privileged, the other poor, oppressed and struggling against crime, corruption and exploitation, both national and international.

  Parade for the Founding of the People's Republic of China (Shanghai). 1950. Hangzhou National School. Courtesy of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre and the Asian Art Museum. 

Another strength of the exhibit is the selection given to the art of Communism and the Cultural Revolution. Bright colors, red cheeks and Chairman Mao preside over what was, in retrospect, as turbulent a period as the 1930's and 1940's.

In Stella Dong's book, Shanghai is often referred to as the Emperor's ugly daughter who never has to worry about finding suitors. The show can only cover a few of Shanghai's suitors because 150 years of history is too much to show, much less tell. Yet, it is more than worth while to see because what is shown is intriguing. While I wished for more, the museum has opened another door into the history of country - and a city -  that is the emerging powerhouse of the coming decade.

Stella Dong.  Shanghai, 1943-1949. The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City
Jonathan D. Spence. The Search for Modern China


James Mitchell said...

Great review, Nancy, you really brought out some of the leading themes in this important show.

namastenancy said...

James - thank you for the appreciative comment. I wanted to do an analytical post but avoid unnecessary rudeness and/or snark. As you said, it's an important show, well worth seeing and I haven't finished writing about it.