A Gathering of Treasures. THE JOURNEY TO THE NATIONAL ART MUSEUM OF CHINA

Wu Weishan

Magazine issue: 
#3 2017 (56)

Heralding the only national art museum in China, construction on the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) began in 1958, and the building was officially inaugurated in 1963, when Mao Zedong inscribed its title board with a work of calligraphy. The Museum is among the architectural landmarks of Chinese culture built after the founding of New China. Its building, surrounded by verandas and pavilions, is a classical-style, multi-storied pavilion with large imperial yellow, glazed-tile roofs, its architecture displaying a distinctive national romantic style. The Museum covers 18,000 square metres, with 17 exhibition halls arranged from the first to the fifth floors, and a total exhibition area of 8,300 square metres. The building is surrounded by an exhibition garden of 3,000 square metres featuring sculptures, and a museum depositary of 4,100 square metres.

In recent years, in response to the demands of cultural development, a new complex of the National Art Museum of China has been planned for a location of 128,600 square metres next to the “Bird’s Nest”, the National Stadium, at Beijing Olympic Green. The Chinese Government has attached high priority to the new art museum building and considers it one of the nation’s key projects. The French architect Jean Nouvel and the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design have formed a team to develop the project.

National Art Museum of China, exterior
National Art Museum of China, exterior. Photograph

The National Art Museum of China, as a museum shrine of the fine arts, has responsibility for accessioning, conserving, researching, and exhibiting representative objects of both Chinese and international arts, as well as disseminating information and ideas. Research and planning of exhibitions is one the main functions of NAMOC. The Museum holds more than one hundred exhibitions each year, which include external loan exhibitions, NAMOC-organized exhibitions, collection activity series, donation exhibitions, and international exchange exhibitions. NAMOC adheres to the principle of establishing awareness of classic work in order to boost the quality of an exhibition, and has successfully held a number of art shows that have had social influence or academic significance. Among such major projects have been exhibitions like “Ink Inheritance - Invited Exhibition of Modern Calligraphy by NAMOC”, “Searching for All Marvellous Peaks - 20th Century Chinese Landscape Painting”, “Selected Masterpieces from Ten Art Museums in China”, “20th Century China’s Art Road - Studying in the Soviet Union”, “Depict Chinese Dream - Art Exhibition on Celebration of the 65th Anniversary of the Founding of PRC”, “Painting Stories - Collected Serial Pictures Original Works”, “Diego Rivera: Pride of Mexico”, “Artists of the People - Exhibition of Paintings Collected by Lao She and Hu Jieqing”, “Classic Collection Exhibition Series - Image of People”, and “From Sources to Inspiration: Ethnic Motifs in Polish Design”.

National Art Museum of China, exhibition hall
National Art Museum of China, exhibition hall. Photograph

The Museum devotes its efforts to promoting international exchange and art dialogues and has an experienced team capable of undertaking research and organizing international exhibitions. Furthermore, NAMOC has a collection of more than 100,000 works, and enjoys a close dialogue with contemporary Chinese artistic creators and leading figures from the world of the arts. It follows concurrent policies expressed in the phrases, “Please come in” and “Go global”, in international art exchanges, while striving to cement an international reputation. NAMOC has hosted more than 170 incoming loan exhibitions, including “From Titian to Goya - Great Masterpieces from the Prado Museum”, “Italian Art and Italian Life”, “Adaptation and Innovation - 300 Years of American Art”, “300 Years of Russian Paintings - The State Tretyakov Gallery Treasures”, “French Impressionism Masterpieces”, “Treasures of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum”, “Naivety and Natural Instincts - Pierre Carron: Painter-Academician of the French Academy of Fine Arts”, “Victory, 1945-2015! Russia Art Exhibition to Commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Victory of the World Anti-Fascist War”, and “Power of Black and White - Kathe Kollwitz Classic Works Exhibition”. NAMOC is also undertaking a project, “Fine Arts from the National Art Museum of China”, designed to demonstrate the development and achievements of contemporary art in China. That project has carried out more than 80 loan exhibitions to countries including France, Mexico and Singapore, and received an enthusiastic response from the international museum community.

Public education activity at NAMOC has been constantly evolving since the museum established its Department of Public Education (DPE) at the end of 2004, and has become one of NAMOC’s main missions. The DPE has been geared towards demands for bright, vivid and educational activities for various categories of viewers, and has provided services for nearly one million people, playing a full role in the social function of NAMOC’s “grand aesthetics classroom”. The Museum, in championing the cause of public education, bases itself on Chinese traditions but has been developing an international outlook. We explore opportunities for exchange, and have held discussions about the educational purpose of the art museum with scholars and experts from universities, art museums, and foundations. NAMOC has hosted educational seminars in cooperation with institutions such as the Teachers College of Columbia University and the Louvre Museum, as well as collaborated with world-renowned museums such as the Guggenheim and the Museum of San Il- defonso College, Mexico City to deliver a number of significant activities of public education, accompanied by either foreign incoming loan exhibitions or NAMOC-organized outgoing loan exhibitions.

The backbone of the Museum is the extraordinary collection of treasures that NAMOC has accumulated over the years, which has contributed to each and every successful exhibition and international exchange, as well as to educational events. Drawing on its collecting tradition, the Museum continues to receive government funds dedicated to accessioning art treasures, laying solid foundations for the future development of NAMOC. In addition, many artists and collectors, fulfilling their commitments towards society, have donated numerous artworks to enrich the Museum’s collections. More than 50 years have passed since NAMOC received its first batch of donated artworks at the beginning of its preparatory period, in 1961. The works accumulated over many years constitute series of the Museum’s collections covering the periods ranging from the Ming and Qing dynasties to the modern era, and in particular series reflecting the development of Chinese fine arts from the 20th century onwards. The Museum also has collections of foreign art. Corresponding to its accumulation of art collections, the Museum continues to strengthen and gradually expand its range of activity. These museum pieces have also been lent for exhibitions abroad for international viewers to admire, playing an important role in international exchanges. The Museum’s series of collections and their main features can be detailed in five sections.

 

Features of the National Art Museum of China

The museum has a large, high-quality collection across a wide variety of fields, such as traditional Chinese guohua painting, oil on canvas painting, etching, sculpture, New Year nianhua (lubok), Lianhuanhua comics, posters and playbills, caricature, book illustrations, photography, calligraphy, works on paper (watercolour, gouache), folk art, installations, and foreign art. The Museum contains representative pieces by Chinese masters of different periods, ranging from ancient to modern times, which together present the development of the arts in China. In addition, it houses foreign artworks, as well as a wealth of works of Chinese folk art. Among the museum’s best-known pieces are paintings by Su Shi, Tang Yin, Xu Wei, Ren Bonian, Wu Changshuo, Huang Binhong, Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, Jiang Zhaohe, Pan Tianshou, Li Keran, Dong Xiwen, Wu Guanzhong, Zhu Dequn, and other artists. In addition, the collection has works of calligraphy by Yu Youren, Gao Ershi, Sha Menghai, Qi Gong and others. The wider system and context of artistic development in China in the 20th century has been based on these collections. In addition, the collections include representative works by important international artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Kathe Kollwitz and Ansel Adams.

GAO ERSHI. A Poem by Liu Zhengong. 1970s
GAO ERSHI. A Poem by Liu Zhengong. 1970s
paper, calligraphy, 41 × 39 cm

Accessioning museum pieces is NAMOC’s founding principle and remains a priority. NAMOC specifies in its guidelines and mission that: “The principal tasks of the Museum are collecting, conserving, researching, displaying, and exhibiting Chinese works of fine arts from successive generations, especially works of professional, popular, ethnic, or folk artists.”

 

Sources of the Museum’s collections

Over many years, NAMOC has accumulated a great number of significant artworks by collecting award-winning works first presented at large-scale national art exhibitions, such as the “National Fine Arts Exhibition”. Through the “20th Century National Arts Collection and Donation Reward Programme”, it preserves many works of art and literature of historical or academic significance created in the 20th century. Since late 2004, NAMOC has completed the processes of acquiring artworks via around 80 donation projects. Works of art by prominent artists such as Zhang Ding, Li Pingfan, Wang Qi, Zeng Zhushao, Hua Tianyou, Su Tianci, Wu Zuoren, Jin Shangyi, Wu Guanzhong, and Zhu Dequn, among others, have been successively acquired for the permanent collection. These collections endorse and enhance the central theme of the evolution of Chinese art in the 20th century.

 

The Museum’s modern and contemporary art collections

For several thousand years, Chinese culture developed and functioned in a closed historical structure. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was forced by external events to change direction. Since Guangzhou and Shanghai were exposed to Western cultural influence earlier than other parts of the country, the Lingnan School and the Shanghai School of Painting were pioneers in modern Chinese art. The Museum houses a number of paintings by the artists of the Lingnan School, including Ju Lian, Gao Jianfu, Chen Shuren, and He Xiangning. The largest such holding is of the work of Chen Shuren, with a total of 116 pieces. In addition, the Museum has 105 pieces by Ren Bonian and 189 pieces by Wu Changshuo: both are masters of the Hai-shan School. At the turn of the 20th century, Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong were also among the masters of traditional Chinese painting who developed their styles in new directions. Qi changed his artistic manner in his old age, having created the so-called “Red-Flower-Black-Leaf” style by blending the compendious, lyrical style of literati painting with the unsophisticated, warm style of folk painting. The Museum contains 410 of Qi’s painting works, covering his career across various periods. Huang Binhong symbolizes perfect Chinese traditional painting: in his pen-and-ink techniques the artist creates rich, smooth, stately, vigorous artworks with really profound meaning and inner beauty. The Museum has 129 paintings by Huang.

JIANG ZHAOHE. Refugees. 1943
JIANG ZHAOHE. Refugees. 1943
Chinese painting. 200 × 1202 cm

In the early 20th century, students studying the arts in Europe, Japan or the USA were pioneers of the Chinese fine arts, introducing the ideas and principles of Western painting to their motherland. They established schools to offer modern education and disseminate knowledge of Western arts. They both produced works of art and taught students, becoming the generation of pioneers known as the Movement of Western Painting. The Museum has a series of black-and-white paintings, “Illustrations of the Ballad of Everlasting Regret”, by Li Yishi, the first Chinese artist to study in the UK. Only two paintings by Wu Fading, the first to study in France, are in the Museum’s possession. Wang Yuezhi was a Chinese student studying in Japan and the first painter to adopt Western oil painting style in his works; the Museum holds all of his 41 surviving pieces. In addition, the Museum has oil paintings by artists including Feng Gangbai, Chen Baoyi, Guan Zilan, and Yan Wenliang, all rare collections of early oil paintings.

After the War of Resistance against Japan broke out, the fine arts began to be integrated into the nation’s destiny and China’s new realities. Prints, cartoons and oil paintings became artistic forms to show social concerns, awareness of the suffering of people’s lives, and the spirit of struggle of the national salvation movement. This category includes Li Hua’s work “Roar, China!”, Hu Yichuan’s “Going to the Frontline”, and Yan Han’s “When Enemy Hunting in the Mountains”, in addition to a large number of prints produced by Ye Fu, Luo Qingzhen, Zhang Yangxi, and Zhang Huaijiang. The Museum features Jiang Zhaohe’s surviving masterpiece, “Refugees”, a large Chinese figure painting, two metres in height by 12 metres in width. The work portrays the tragic reality of the suffering of the Chinese people under displacement and their devastation by Japanese troops, igniting a deep sympathy for human misery and hardship. Its shocking images make the painting one of the Museum’s greatest treasures.

The collection also has an important sculpture produced during the same period, “Bombing”, by the sculptor Hua Tianyou, who was among the first generation of Chinese students to study in France. In addition to the collections of prints produced during the War of Resistance, the Museum’s collection of woodcuts produced in the liberated territories is remarkable, with works by Gu Yuan, Yan Han, Li Qun and Liu Xian and other sculptors exhibited together. In the 1940s, along with the awakening of national consciousness, many artists, responding to the call of “constructing the Northwest” and “developing the Northwest”, went to Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai provinces, Xinjiang, or other parts of the Northwest, to sketch from nature and paint, as well as to explore and travel. Among them were Zhang Daqian, Zhao Wangyun, Guan Shanyue, Li Xiongcai, Wang Ziyun, Dong Xiwen, Wu Zuoren, Situ Qiao, Han Leran, and Chang Shuhong: their artworks constitute a special series of the Museum’s collections, and special touring exhibitions have been organized in Xinjiang, Guangxi, Chongqing, Ningxia provinces and regions.

NAMOC’s post-1949 collection is a highlight, including classics such as “Great Unity of China’s Nations” by Ye Qianyu, “Moving Forward in Snowy Wind” by Huang Zhou, “Red over the Mountains as if the Forests Are Dyed” by Li Keran, “A Manifestation on Landscape since Adolescence” by Fu Ba- oshi, “The Emancipation of the Millennial Land” by Dong Xiwen, and “A Flock of Geese on Lake Tai” by Wu Guanzhong. Such works praised the new society and exhorted labour and construction, reflecting the connotation of their times as well as distinctive ethnic characteristics, and became classics of realism. The New China print genre is brilliant and varied, revealing a flourishing diversity. Huang Yongyu, painter of “Ashima”, and Li Huanmin, of “Stepping Down the Golden Path for the First Time”, voice the vivid, touching poetic flavour of real life with their genuine, unadorned sentiments. The Museum also exhibits the series of bust sketches, “Bas-Reliefs on Monument to the People’s Heroes”, created by Liu kaiqu, Hua Tianyou, and Zeng Zhushao, three first-generation sculptors.

During the new era of reform and opening up, many creative figures re-oriented themselves towards realism and humanism. Luo Zhongli’s oil painting, “Father”, a work which has become a household name in China, heralded a new era of art in China. Contemporary conceptualist artworks stand apart and form a special section in the Museum’s collection.

 

The Museum’s foreign art collection

NAMOC has been actively acquiring international art, with more than 3,400 pieces in the international part of the Museum’s collection. Donations from private collectors are the main sources to gain foreign art. As a rule complete collections are donated to the Museum. Prime among such donations was that from the German collectors Mr. and Mrs. Peter Ludwig, who presented 117 pieces of contemporary art including post-war European and American Pop art and Neo-Expressionism, as well as the realism of Eastern Europe, including work by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Roy Lichtenstein, and four works by Picasso. That donation presents a panorama of international art which crosses all geographical and national boundaries.

Liu Xun’s donation of oil paintings included works by People’s Artists, and Distinguished Artists of Russia, including seven oil paintings by Andrei Mylnikov, a Russian master who is well-known in China. Li Pingfan donated 771 pieces of Japanese art, including a complete series of ukiyo-e and contemporary prints. The husband-and-wife collectors Han Rong and Li Songshan donated 135 pieces of African wood carving. Other donations have included collections of artworks by members of France’s Academie des Beaux-Arts; photographs by the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer; prints by the famous German printmaker Kathe Kollwitz; and sculpture by Spain’s Salvador Dali and Manolo Valdes, Britain’s Anthony Stones, and the Franco-Chinese artist Xiong Bingming.

 

The Museum’s collections of folk arts

In the early 1980s, the Government established a special Organizing Committee in order to preserve the folk arts of China. The National Art Museum of China, as a designated caretaker of that project, has sent professionals around the country to collect scattered works of folk art, and such work was formally included in the issues of national accession. In 1996, the preparatory collection was integrated into the Department of Folk Art of the National Art Museum of China, which has continued to conduct surveying, research, collecting, and organization of works of folk arts. Over more than 30 years, a collection of no less than 60,000 pieces of folk arts has been assembled, including New Year nianhua (lubok), paper cuts (jianzhi), toys, shadow-puppetry, painted clay figures, theatre props, puppetry, kites, embroidery, batik, ceramics, and ethnic costume. This folk art collection has some very rare and priceless pieces, such as New Year nianhua paintings produced in the Ming and Qing dynasties, Shaanxi shadow-puppet theatre works from the Qing dynasty, painted clay figures by the clay-figurine master Zhang of Tianjin, and the embroidered costumes of the Miao ethnic group of Guizhou province. In 2016, Li Huizhen donated 1,770 baby slings used by ethnic groups of the south-western region, produced during the period ranging from the late Qing dynasty to the modern era: his donation contributed greatly to the Museum’s folk arts collections. Together they demonstrate the wisdom and creativity of folk artists, and reflect the aesthetic inclinations of the working people, showing the distinct cultural variations existing across different times and different regions.

The National Art Museum of China is directly under the leadership of the Ministry of Culture. The Museum’s past curators have been Liu Kaiqu, Yang Lizhou, Feng Yuan, Fan Di’an, and since 2014 myself, Wu Weishan. Thanks to the cumulative efforts of successive generations of museum staff, NAMOC has shown itself committed to demonstrating the latest achievements of artistic creation both in China and abroad, to promoting artistic dialogue and exchange between China and other countries, and to improving the public’s cultural awareness and level of aesthetics. The Museum provides a space for domestic artists to show their talents, and many exhibitions of historical significance have been held there. Furthermore, NAMOC spares no efforts in introducing art from abroad and has maintained very good cooperative relationship with many internationally renowned museums. NAMOC has organised nearly 1,000 influential exhibitions across various categories, reflecting the rich development trends of Chinese art. As a result, the Museum has become an important platform for artistic exchange between China and the rest of the world.

The National Art Museum of China, as the country’s shrine of the fine arts, should not only base itself on traditional as well as contemporary Chinese arts, but also set its eyes further on the world, to manifest its value in a society where multiple cultures collide and intermingle, as well as to facilitate the creation of new arts.

Illustrations

GAO ERSHI. A Poem by Liu Zhengong. 1970s. Detail
GAO ERSHI. A Poem by Liu Zhengong. 1970s
Calligraphy, paper, 41 × 39 cm. Detail
WU CHANGSHUO. Green Plum Blossoms. 1916. Detail
WU CHANGSHUO. Green Plum Blossoms. 1916
Chinese painting. 148.5 × 160 cm. Detail
WU CHANGSHUO. Green Plum Blossoms. 1916
WU CHANGSHUO. Green Plum Blossoms. 1916
Chinese painting. 148.5 × 160 cm.
LIN SANZHI. Du Mu’s Quatrain
LIN SANZHI. Du Mu’s Quatrain "Spring South of the River"
Calligraphy. Scroll. 94 × 33.5 cm
CHEN SHIZENG. Returning to Her Parental Home, a Beijing Genre Scene
CHEN SHIZENG. Returning to Her Parental Home, a Beijing Genre Scene
28.5 × 34.7 cm
QI BAISHI. Shrimps
QI BAISHI. Shrimps
Chinese painting. 68.8 × 33.7 cm
LIN FENGMIAN. Ducks on the Autumn Lake. 1960
LIN FENGMIAN. Ducks on the Autumn Lake. 1960
Chinese painting. Ink on paper. 69 × 69 cm
FU BAOSHI. A Manifestation on Landscape since Adolescence. 1961
FU BAOSHI. A Manifestation on Landscape since Adolescence. 1961
100 × 111.5 cm
LI KERAN. 'Ten thousand mountains stretch out in red; the layered woods are coloured through'. 1973
LI KERAN. "Ten thousand mountains stretch out in red; the layered woods are coloured through".* 1973
Colour ink on paper. 69.5 × 45.5 cm
* The painting's title comes from a line of Mao Zedong's poem "Changsha"
HUANG BINHONG. Mist and Clouds over Pine Tree Forest
HUANG BINHONG. Mist and Clouds over Pine Tree Forest
Chinese painting. 132.6 × 66.5 cm
KAETHE KOLLWITZ. A Self-portrait of the Painter Facing to the Right. c. 1938
KAETHE KOLLWITZ. A Self-portrait of the Painter Facing to the Right. c. 1938
Print. 48 × 29.5 cm
XU BEIHONG. A Galloping Horse. 1951
XU BEIHONG. A Galloping Horse. 1951
Colour ink on paper. 107.7 × 50 cm
LI HUA. Roar, China! 1935
LI HUA. Roar, China! 1935
Print. 20 × 15 cm
PABLO PICASSO. An Infantry with a Pigeon. 1971
PABLO PICASSO. An Infantry with a Pigeon. 1971 Oil on canvas. 146 × 114 cm
SALVADOR DALI. A Faun’s Head and Horns. Sculpture. 1974
SALVADOR DALI. A Faun’s Head and Horns. Sculpture. 1974
217 × 74 × 66 cm
LUO ZHONGLI. Father. 1980
LUO ZHONGLI. Father. 1980 Oil on canvas. 222 × 155 cm
WU GUANZHONG. A Flock of Geese on Lake Tai. 1974
WU GUANZHONG. A Flock of Geese on Lake Tai. 1974
Oil on canvas. 44 × 59.5 cm
WU ZUOREN. A Portrait of Qi Baishi. 1954
WU ZUOREN. A Portrait of Qi Baishi. 1954 Oil on canvas. 113 × 86 cm
DONG XIWEN. The Emancipation of the Millennial Land. 1963
DONG XIWEN. The Emancipation of the Millennial Land. 1963
Oil on canvas. 66 × 115 cm
JIN SHANGYI. A Tajik Girl. 1984
JIN SHANGYI. A Tajik Girl. 1984 Oil on canvas. 60 × 50 cm
PIERRE CARRON. Fashionable Girl. 2009
PIERRE CARRON. Fashionable Girl. 2009 Oil on paper. 16 × 16 cm
У ВЭЙШАНЬ. Между сходством и несходством – Ци Байши
WU WEISHAN. A Soul Distinguishing between Likeness and Unlikeness – Qi Baishi Bronze sculpture. 324 × 121.5 × 88 cm

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