In 1874, the first group exhibition featuring Claude Monet’s work was, famously, a failure. The artist had hoped to sell his painting Impression, Sunrise for 1,000 francs; to provide scale for those financial expectations, the entrance fee was 60 francs. It went unsold. But that painting’s title did provide a waggish critic with a term he used to sneer at this dubious new art movement – and inadvertently giving it the name by which it would become known.
Impressionism, however, had caught the eye of a man called Ernest Hoschedé. Being the owner of a department store, he had some money. Hoschedé’s name wasn’t mentioned at last weekend’s opening of China’s first-ever Monet exhibition but his spirit evidently lingers on.
As the show consists of 40 Monet masterpieces – including some of the Water Lilies series and several later depictions of the Japanese bridge at Giverny – plus 12 paintings by such stellar Impressionists as Berthe Morisot and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, it might have been assumed this extraordinary artistic banquet had been laid out in a museum. But no. It’s in the basement of K11, a Shanghai mall.
Shanghai K11 is the younger sister of Hong Kong’s K11 which, when it opened in Tsim Sha Tsui in December 2009, was described by its owners New World Development as “the world’s first art mall”. Shortly afterwards, the K11 Art Foundation was set up by Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, the 34-year-old heir to New World Development (and to Chow Tai Fook, the jewellery juggernaut). Shanghai’s K11 opened last June, and is continuing Cheng’s mission to bring art to the masses.
It’s easy to see what K11 gets out of this arrangement. But why has the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which has lent all the paintings, agreed to stage the mainland’s first Monet exhibition in a shopping complex?
“Many reasons,” says Marianne Mathieu, assistant director of the Marmottan museum, briskly. In 2004, working for the Musée d’Orsay, she helped organise the “Impressionist Treasures from the French National Collections” shows in Beijing and Shanghai, as part of the Year of France in China.
“In 2004, it was a national event. But the Musée Marmottan Monet is a private museum and this show has nothing to do with public institutions,” she says. “We could organise it in a short time, which made it easier – we started to plan it only about a year ago. Also, for you K11 is a mall. But my job is to tour shows abroad. I’ve been doing that for 10 years and we have seen such institutions everywhere, in Japan, Korea, Madrid.”
Half of the Monet paintings owned by the Marmottan – which has the largest collection of Monet’s works in the world – are in the Shanghai exhibition.
Their provenance could hardly be bettered. In 1957, the daughter of Dr Georges de Bellio, who cared for ailing Impressionists, gave her collection to the museum. That bequest included Impression, Sunrise, which isn’t in Shanghai. (There’s a slightly unfortunate Asian association: a Japanese yakuza member is thought to have been behind its theft, with eight other paintings, from the Marmottan in 1985. It was safely recovered, in Corsica, five years later.)
In 1966, Michel Monet, the artist’s second son, was killed in a car accident, and the works that he had inherited when his father died in 1926 were also donated to the museum.
“When he died, Monet wasn’t considered an important figure,” says Mathieu. “That’s why Michel gave them to a private institution. A masterpiece is a good painting at a good time. Monet didn’t become important until the 1970s.”
Now, of course, Monet has become a brand as marketable as any of his new K11 neighbours. “We’re not allowed to communicate amounts of money,” says Mathieu, when asked to guesstimate the worth of what she’s brought to Shanghai. But she has a background working with auction houses, and during the 2004 Impressionist show, her professional instincts prompted an attempt to work out its insurance value. The figures were so huge, the calculator ran out of space. “So I thought, ‘Okay – this is another world’,” she says.
Entry to the exhibition costs 100 yuan (HK$126), or 70 yuan for the 60,000 people who pre-booked before the opening. The organisers are hoping 300,000 people will have visited by the time it closes on June 15; in Taipei, where the show just completed a three-month run at the National Museum of History, there were 220,000 visitors. “If we want to offer this sort of show they have to be blockbusters,” Mathieu says.
Curiously, she has never met Adrian Cheng. “But I met his team. We didn’t choose this place because of Adrian but because of what he’s done with it. We wanted a very modern, contemporary place and K11 is located in the heart of a city, close to the people.”
Cheng wasn’t at the opening ceremony either; he was 11,000 kilometres away, taking part in The China Symposium, a series of conversations at New York’s Armory Show about the state of Chinese contemporary art. He sent a statement saying that he hoped Monet’s “bold and innovative spirit” would “stimulate young Chinese artists, students of art and our community to experiment and create their own movement”.
He missed, therefore, the Irish music, the magician (doing tricks with playing-cards and lit cigarettes) and the speeches, in French and Putonghua, that heralded not only the launch of the exhibition but the 50th anniversary of Sino-French diplomatic relations. After balloons had been released into the upper retail reaches, guests descended on escalators to the gallery space.
Local newspapers were reporting that 100 security guards had been employed for the exhibition. They’re likely to have their hands full stopping people from taking photos; and the rooms echo to the sound of constantly beeping alarms as viewers lean in over-closely to study Monet’s brushstroke.
Yet it’s hard not to feel entranced. These are not the most beautiful, nor the most spectacular, of Monet’s works (no haystacks, no Rouen Cathedral facades, no poppies) but the show is a composite portrait of a life – from the young Oscar-Claude, doing his gleeful caricatures in the days when he signed himself “O.Monet”, to the man in his 80s, recovering from cataract surgery and reworking his radiant Giverny canvases as if he’d never seen trees, or colour, properly before. The last work is dated 1926, the year he died.
In between, there are Renoir portraits of Monsieur and Madame Monet; and a Monet of Michel as a child. There’s also Charing Cross Bridge, Smoke in the Fog from 1902. Monet loved the diffused light of a “London particular”; he would have found the impression of beauty in a Beijing smog.
Most of all, there’s Giverny which Monet saw one day from a train window, as if it were already framed. He moved there with Alice Hoschedé, wife of Ernest. She became Monet’s mistress and, eventually, his second wife. (Poor Hoschedé. Not only was he cuckolded, the department store went bust and he was obliged to sell Monet’s works – at a loss.)
Alice had six offspring and Monet had two, and the children carried his canvases around when he did his open-air painting.
As part of the Monet festivities, K11 has built a Japanese bridge at the front of the building and, at the top of the escalator on the first floor, there’s a mini-Giverny, planted by an enterprising flower shop. “Bringing Back Monet’s Muse Eden of 1890”, states the garden’s sign in 2014 Shanghai. You can wander through a grassy glade on stepping-stones, with flowers dangling – in French farmhouse fashion – from the overhead air-conditioning ducts, past bowls of pansies and a pool filled with lilies, right up to the entrance of Dolce & Gabbana.