Article By A. Scott Buch
Let’s just say I’m a master of infiltration to find myself in the middle of a place where Carlos I, the former king of Spain, recently attended a banquet. Needless to say, there is a true sense of prestige here in the Qu Jiang Museum of Fine Arts. There is a kind of cultural authenticity on display here that is verified by the description I read on the wall – miraculously free of a single spelling error – which proclaims that the pieces in Pablo Picasso’s Handmade Silver Plates and Ceramics Collection are “genuine products of their creators.” The description also notes that one of the goals of the collection is to expand the understanding of art in China.
“Picasso and children share many similarities,” says Grace He, the fantastic Interpreter and Volunteer trainer of Qu Jiang museum, a super smart woman who nonetheless thinks I’m an art critic, and doesn’t realize I’m a lowly teacher lucked into a Xianease assignment. But one of the cool things about Qu Jiang museum, I think,is that it is actually connecting students with this Picasso exhibit, for example, by offering primary schools a chance to come to the museum. After experiencing the Picasso collection, which Grace describes as “full of freedom [and] simple…easy to imitate,” students are given ceramic plates on which they use simple tools, such as sticks and small knives, to make a sketch, presumably influenced by Picasso. Colors are later added to the ceramic plates by the student’s art teachers, and then, this spontaneous modern art goes on display right next to the Picasso.
Living in China has certainly hardened me into a skeptic and cynic – which is one reason why I was surprised and more than a little thrilled to know that the Picasso Collection proudly proclaims its authenticity. Speaking of the collection: there are 53 pieces by Picasso on display here. All of them are sculptures. The pieces were all made by Picasso in his later life, at around the age of 70, starting from about 1955-56, in France, when the artist started reinterpreting his own style through sculpture. The majority are silver plates. Each one clearly displays the characteristics of a work by Picasso, featuring the recognizable spatial distortions of Cubism. The most unique part of the collection is a complete edition of 13 ceramic plates called Madoura Plein Feu, conceived by Picasso in 1948, which was actually created as a wedding present for the glamorous Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth, when she left her acting career to marry Prince Aly Khan of Pakistan. Other than the title pieces by Picasso the collection also features 2 sculptures by Auguste Rodin (including a miniature “The Thinker”) and 11 still life oil paintings of mostly Dutch origin created in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the Picasso is clearly the soul of the collection, and even though his silver plates and ceramics may be among the artist’s lesser known works, this is just one of the exhibitions in the Qu Jiang Museum.
Perhaps far more interesting to foreigners, or at least it was to me particularly, is the permanent exhibition of the museum, The Origin and History of Ancient Chinese Murals, what along with the Picasso collection can be appreciated by the common patron for a fee of 50 yuan. The exhibition contains 92 murals taken from tombs, temples, and palaces, of which the oldest dates to about 6000 years old. There are murals dated to about every major period of Chinese history, a comprehensive collection spanning a period of time from Qin up to Qing dynasty. To contemplate these mural paintings, especially if you are fortunate enough to have as knowledgeable a guide as Grace He, is essentially to see the progression of ancient figure painting throughout the extensive history of Chinese civilization.
One can find religious, political,and artistic significance in these developments. For example, early murals reflect Daoism, and shamanistic conceptions of humanity in relation to nature and immortality, whereas the influence of Buddhism can be seen in murals dating after the prospering of the religion around the 6th century. As painting was a lower class skill for most of Chinese history, images designed on bricks or coffins by illiterate servants reflect the perspective of the ruling class, that their tombs were a gateway into an afterlife of material luxury. Stylistically, around the Tang dynasty, some innovations in painting are introduced, including the tendency to paint in ink and compose paintings mostly of long flowing lines, a style of drunken master Wu Dao Zi that catches on in later centuries and is widely imitated.
Finally, the most precious relic in the exhibition is not even a mural at all, it is a gold suit of armor of about 2700 years old, the “only one in China,” dated to the Western Zhou period before the unification of Qin. The relic was actually first discovered by grave robbers in Gansu province and then sold overseas. The proprietor of Westin, Peter Kwok, who is the owner of the private collection of art that features in Qu Jiang Museum, purchased the precious relic from France. Mr. Kwok then returned the set of golden armor to the state, which now allows the relic to be displayed in the museum. This story makes a good summary of what is great about the Qu Jiang Museum of Fine Arts, namely, that there is deep appreciation for art and culture here, as the museum does not simply display works of art, but is active in restoring and preserving them.
Though I got lost in speculating as to why the turquoise pigment appears in Han dynasty but then disappears just as mysteriously, and couldn’t finish looking at the rest of the murals before the close of the museum, I was left with a deep appreciation of what I saw.
For a cool confluence of ancient and modern, check out Qu Jiang Museum of Fine Arts.
A.Scott Buch has rode a camel into the sunset. He could be reached at Ascottbuch@yahoo.com