09 Mar, 2014
Global Times, by Hu Bei

Even after all these years, Pan Shengqian, a Shanghai oil painting artist and former dean of the College of Art Design at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, still remembers the first time he saw the actual works of Claude Monet (1840-1928), one of the great representatives of French impressionism.

In 1978, with the support of the French government 48 French national museums jointly held an exhibition in Beijing and Shanghai called The Pastoral Paintings of 19th century France.

“It was the very first large exhibition of Western art held after the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” Pan recalled. “However, among the almost 90 exhibited paintings, there were only several not-so-well-known pieces from Monet. A majority of the exhibit consisted of representative works of French naturalism and realism.

“This indicated that, at the time, impressionism had yet to be widely accepted by the Chinese public, despite the fact that during the early 1920s, Liu Haisu (1986-94), a Chinese painting pioneer who studied Western art, had introduced the style into China,” Pan added.

Impressed by impressionism

This is one of the main reasons that Pan strongly recommends that everyone take this opportunity to visit the first Monet solo exhibition to ever be held on the Chinese mainland. Nearly 40 years after Monet’s first visit to China, this exhibition is being held at the Shanghai K11 Art Mall until June 15 and is notable for showing some of Monet’s most classical pieces such as the Nymphéas (Water Lilies) and Le Pont Japonais (The Japanese Bridge) series. These two series were mainly painted by Monet during the last decade of his career in his private garden in Giverny, France.

As an oil painter himself, Pan always felt that the 1978 exhibition was a pity for himself and many other Chinese painters, especially prominent artists like Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, Li Keran, Wu Guanzhong and Chen Yifei, who were actively exploring Western art at the time. “Our works had been undeniably influenced by impressionism, of course, giving priority to the works of Monet,” Pan explained.

The nearly 40 Monet paintings being currently displayed at the exhibition are all on loan from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris (home to the world’s largest collection of Monet works), while 12 other paintings by other impressionist masters such as Renoir that had been collected by Monet are also being shown.

“The key way to appreciate and understand Monet’s paintings is to know his way of painting,” said Marianne Mathieu, a deputy director at the Musée Marmottan Monet. “That is mainly, the capture of a moment of light and color in nature.

“To appreciate Monet, is not to see what he painted, but see how he painted. Monet was never a descriptive painter who painted what he saw, but an emotional artist who painted what he felt.”

Capturing the moment

According to Mathieu, Monet had the habit of either working on several paintings at the same time or working on the same painting at different times. Additionally, due to his fear that he would fail to capture a fleeting instant properly many of his works were constantly criticized by his contemporaries for their “incompleteness.”

In Mathieu’s opinion, Monet’s paintings of water lilies show his wish to remain attuned to Nature, which itself is never finished in its work. By renouncing completeness, he captures an aspect of nature that is open to infinity.

She added that, “Coincidentally, this kind of infinity is relevant to Asian art culture, especially Chinese landscape paintings. Upon viewing many of these works, many Chinese visitors will easily see a connection with Chinese landscape paintings.”

Mathieu’s opinion is echoed by Pan who believes that the revolutionary influence Monet had on Chinese painters was limited to the capture of light and color in nature at a moment in time.

“Before Monet and impressionism, most Chinese painters only used black to show contrasts in lighting and shading. However, after that, we learned that other brighter colors could also be used to effect and realized that we had to leave the painting studio so we could make use of the color produced by natural light.”

Pan believes that one of Monet’s achievements is that he made his paintings become vibrant works of art that contain the painter’s personal feelings and emotion, and not just a stiff and apathetic adherence to how an object appears in real life. “This is an important point to keep in mind when appraising his works,” Pan said.

A change of scene

The exhibition venue has also aroused public interest because this high-quality art exhibition is not being held in a State-subsidized art museum, but rather a commercial shopping mall in downtown Shanghai.

Jin Xiaojing – a senior communications officer with Tix-Media, the company that organized the exhibition – told the Global Times that the huge operating costs (according to a report from a major Chinese newspaper in Shanghai, Xinmin Evening News, total insurance coverage has reached $832.5 million) behind the exhibition became a major consideration when it came to choosing a venue. As a private cultural industry enterprise, if they had chosen a government-subsidized art museum, they would have been forced to charge a low admission price, or not charge at all, a move that wouldn’t cover the costs of bringing the exhibition to China. Admission to the exhibit is currently 100 yuan ($16).

“Fortunately,” Jin said, “the K11 Art Space, covering 2,000 square meters in downtown Shanghai was willing to provide a free venue to us because it receives support from the K11 Art Foundation, which belongs to the mall’s company.”

Pan told the Global Times that the combination of art exhibition and shopping mall has indeed become a trend in China. He thinks this is understandable, and in his opinion the advantage of such a trend is that art exhibitions are no longer only for professional artists or hobbyists, but are now in a place where they can attract the general public, who will probably enter and have a look when they feel tried of shopping.