The Word on Chinese Art

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The Word on Chinese Art

The word on Chinese art is that it’s hot. Everywhere I went I was seeing contemporary images of Chinese floral motifs, pictures of Mao, and calligraphy in every sort of medium and mutation—in photography, on porcelain, in painting and in performance. As the Chinese economy grows, so does its presence in the art world.

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Qiu Zhijie's Scholar Garden

There is a kind of fetishizing by Western collectors over contemporary Chinese art, which is understandable and not at all unusual. When a culture has been so completely cut off from the rest of the world, as China has, it’s only natural for passionate interest to take hold from the outside. It happened over 200 years ago when Japan’s last shogunate, the Tokugawa, suddenly opened Japan to the West. Japanese wood block prints flooded the Parisian art market, the center of the art world at the time. Artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Whistler were so taken by the prints of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro that impressionism and post-impressionism were completely transformed by it.

As far as contemporary Chinese art goes, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. In the years that Mao ruled, the West had not heard a peep out of Chinese artists. The years between 1969-1976 are known as the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese art and culture were completely suppressed and actively destroyed by the Gang of Four. No art except Communist propaganda was being produced. What we forget is that the history of Chinese art spans a vast, rich and previously unbroken tradition.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, when the West was in its medieval period, China was in the T’ang and Sung era—a time of cultural advancement when the tradition of monumental landscape painting was at its height. By the time the Western Renaissance began, China moved into a more abstracted modern period during the Yuan Dynasty. All throughout China’s dynastic periods, her arts and culture completely influenced her neighbors from Mongolia and Korea in the North, across the sea to Japan and down into Burma, Thailand and Malaysia. When the Nationalist government was run out of China by Mao, Chiang Kai-shek took all the great treasures of Chinese art to Taiwan with him. So if you ever travel to the Taipei Museum, all the great masters of Chinese landscape painting are there—a collection somewhat akin to European art and the Louvre.

We in the West have been sitting in our own sort of first world isolation. Just as our Western economy has suddenly become rocked by the growth of the Asian market, so too is our art world. And now, we are about to clash with an artistic culture of epic proportions.

Art Basel 3: Chinese art