Fresh interpretation of early 20th century Chinese art

Craig Clunas ed Professor Craig Clunas ponders a question from the audience   Photo Paul Harris

Earlier this week, Professor Craig Clunas, Professor of Chinese Art at Oxford University, gave his first lecture in a series of three on 20th century Chinese art for Gresham College (founded 1597). It was a public lecture (with free entry) held at the Museum of London and dealt with the topic China: New Nation, New Art 1911-32.

Clunas took as his starting point a highly unusual painting entitled simply Viewing Pictures (1917) by Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) which proved to be particularly apposite to the topic. It was outstanding as a piece of social observation and both stylistically and subject-wise was untypical not just of Shizeng’s oeuvre, but also that of other painters of the day. The painting includes both Chinese and Western visitors to The National Museum at a private view of the type that probably survives little changed to this day. In 1918, however, such an interaction would have been highly unusual and the picture presages the great changes about to take place, the meeting of East and West in artistic terms.

Craig Clinas Chen Shizeng Viewing Pictures                                   Chen Shizeng Viewing Pictures (1917)

I suppose that many of us had, to a very great extent, hitherto ascribed developments in Chinese art after the First World War directly to the influences of Europe, generally, and Paris, specifically. Clunas, however, brought something of a fresh perspective which has widened my own personal vision and, I suspect, that of most of the audience. He examined on some detail guohua (national painting) and the developments that took place in that arena, singling out some dramatic images which clearly demonstrated filtered influences from Europe.

I was particularly intrigued by the Liu Haisu painting Qianmen Gate: a dramatic image of the towering bulk of the architectural mass that was the gate with turbulent clouds behind. If I had been obliged to guess the name of the artist, I would probably have come out with Frank Brangwyn!

Liu Haisu Tianneman Gate Liu Haisu Qianmen Gate

Clunas used two devices to progress his analysis of the period 1911-32. He delved deep into the pages of the Shanghai art magazine Liangyou Luabao, which is the sole source for many images of paintings lost in the turbulent tide of Chinese modern history, and he chose two painters to tell the story: Xu Beihong (1895-1953), particularly, and, to a lesser extent Lin Fengmian (1900-91). It is his view that Beihong, known simply to millions as the man who painted furipusly galloping horses, was central to the development of Chinese art during the 1920s (“a massive influence”). Quite apart from his writing and educational work, he was responsible in large part for the introduction of Western artistic materials to China.

Xu Beihong              Xu Beihong Self Portrait

Professor Clunas will give two further lectures for Gresham College at The Museum of London on February 19 and May 14 2018 under the titles China: Art, War and Salvation 1933-49 and China: Art, Power and Revolutions 1950-76.

Bonhams emerge as top player in The Big Three after Asian Art in London

Last week’s Asian Art in London was particularly notable for witnessing the emergence of Bonhams auction house as the top player, historically regarded as No. 3 after Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Recent months have seen its more famous rivals grappling with problems financial and organisational and the evidence strongly suggests that Bonhams have cleverly snuck in to grab the laurels.

Bonhams Fine Chinese Art sale at New Bond Street London on November 9 made £11,971,313, the highest total for an Asian art auction in London last week.

Leading the Bonhams sale was a set of four Huanghuali Folding Chairs that achieved a well-nigh incredible £5,296,250, winning the accolade for the most valuable Asian work of art to be sold last week in London. As one wag put it, ‘Not bad for a set of deckchairs !’

4 chairs bonhams

The folding chairs appear to be the only known version of this form and type, and may now be considered a masterpiece of Ming Dynasty furniture. They had been estimated at £150,000 – 200,000 and came from an Italian aristocratic vendor. In a packed saleroom, the bidding war finally came down to a tense battle between a bidder in the room and one on the phone, with the chairs finally knocked down to the phone bidder.

The chairs came from the collection of the distinguished Italian diplomat, Marchese Taliani de Marchio, (1887 – 1968) and his wife, Maragaretha, the Archduchess d’Austria Toscana (1894 – 1986). From 1938 to 1946, Taliani served as Ambassador to the Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek Government. Despite spending only eight years in China, the Talianis were shrewd and gifted connoisseurs who assembled a collection of extremely important pieces that convey the rich history of Chinese decorative arts. 

An important and exceedingly rare pair of Huanghuali Tapering Cabinets from the Ming Dynasty from the same collection, estimated at £200,000-300,000, sold for a remarkable price of £1,688,750.

Bonhams International Head of Chinese Art, Asaph Hyman said, “The exceptional prices realised for the rare set of folding chairs and the pair of cabinets are amongst the highest ever achieved for Chinese furniture, a result that reflects their importance. We feel very privileged to have been entrusted with this historic collection.”

Earlier in the week on 6 and 7 November, Bonhams Asian Art sale at Knightsbridge made £2,377,150. The top lot was a famille rose scholar and fisherman dish that sold for £93,750.

Thursday November 9 turned out to be an auspicious day for Bonhams. That evening it was awarded the prestigious Asian Art in London prize for the outstanding work of art offered by an auction house. It was presented to Suzannah Yip, Director of Bonhams Japanese Department, at AAL’s Gala Evening at the British Museum. It was a joint winner with Chiswick Auctions.

The prize-winning object was a beautiful roiro – black lacquer panel – by Shibata Zeshin (1807-91). The panel is decorated with bell crickets on grasses growing on a bank, set against a silver lacquer full moon, and embellished with silver dewdrops.

The award – sponsored by Apollo Magazine and the Antiques Trade Gazette – was judged by museum curators from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, together with representatives from the sponsors Apollo magazine and Antiques Trade Gazette.

20171108_180114 William Sargent addresses a packedroom at Bonhams London on November 8      Photo Paul Harris

It should also be noted that Bonhams took the opportunity of AAL to mount a series of receptions, lectures and special exhibitions. Most impressive was a display of Chinese tureens made for the Spanish Nobility, which was accompanied by a lecture from William R Sargent, formerly at the Peabody Essex Museum.

All in all, a great performance from Bonhams and a shot across the bows of Sotheby’s and Christie’s who, as one observer put it, ‘will need to buck their ideas up.’

20171108_175706

One of the Fantastic Creatures on display at Bonham’s, London.  Photo Paul Harris

Here is our pick of Asian Art in London at 20

We spent four days seeing as much as we could of the 20th year of Asian Art in London, a veritable panoply of wonderful things on display and many on offer. Here are our favorite objects and exhibits, in no particular order.

20171109_160458 Eskenazi Limestone Hands being a portion of a much larger funerary piece and curiously modern in its appearance. Northern Qi period 550-575. Xiangtangshan Cave Temples. From Eskenazi’s exhibition of Six Dynasties Art from the Norman A Kurland Collection.  Photo Paul Harris

20171109_160633 Eskenazi Two Caparisoned Horses From the same outstanding exhibition, two painted earthenware horses, Northern Qi. Photo Paul Harris

20171109_160903 Eskenazi  Two Figures Earthenware Northern Wei period (early 8th century). As with all the Eskenazi exhibits, superb lighting which made photography a delight! Photo Paul Harris

20171110_105831Marchant  Kangxi Famille Verte Within their Kensington Church Street premises old-established dealers Marchant held a breathtaking exhibition of Kangxi famille verte pieces put together by them from stock items dating back more than a decade and including several bearing the provenance of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A great show.  Photo Paul Harris

20171109_155703 Ben Janssens  Their lease at an end in their Jermyn Street premises, Ben Janssens put on his show, as usual marked by the exquisite small objects on display, in temporary space in Old Bond Street. We particularly liked the exhibit in the foreground Group of Black Pottery Horses, Figures and a Carriage (Yuan Dynasty 1279-1368).  Photo Paul Harris

20171109_162345 Berwald Our attention was grabbed by this evocative rendering of a Silk Road mercant and his camel. Tang Dynasty. Photo Paul Harris

20171110_161203 Cohen & Cohen showed their usual large selection of Chinese export pieces, this time in the capacious premises of Colnaghis in St James’s which served to show off the exhibits at their best. Probably the most eyecatching was a pair of wall sconces, design attributed to Cornelius Pronck (1736-40) and entitled The Flamethrower. If you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it . . . offers please in the region of £280,000 for these exquisite pieces.   Photo Paul Harris

20171109_132648East Meets West Exhibition at The Design Centre in Chelsea concentrating on the work of contemporary young Japanese and Chinese artists. Centre, The Winter at Lianghe Village (2011) a woodcut  by Yu Chengyou.  Photo Paul Harris

20171109_132749

Asian Art in London celebrates in style in the wake of Her Majesty!

20171109_195543 Roger Keverne, AAL Chairman (right), looks pleased as he makes a point at the Asian Art in London 20th Anniversary Gala Party held in the British Museum’s Joseph Hutong Gallery on Thursday evening.  Photo Paul Harris.

 

The AAL Gala Party is normally a glittering affair and the 20th Birthday Party held on Thursday probably excelled itself. Around 450 celebrants crowded into the newly renovated and redesigned Joseph Hutong Gallery of Chinese and South Asian Art at London’s British Museum. This was very much a preview. The Gallery does not fully open to the public until December and just one rather important visitor sprang in ahead of AAL the day previously, HM Queen Elizabeth II (and rightly so!).

So the surroundings were impeccable, the exhibits on show stunning and, as usual, the champagne flowed in unlimited quantities, fully justifying the £70 ticket price! All was in sharp contrast to last year’s event which took place in a cafeteria atmosphere in Chinatown.

AAL Chairman Roger Keverne, who will resign in December, at which time the Board of AAL will vote on his successor, compered and, in association with Director Virginia Sykes-Wright, introduced this year’s winners of the AAL Awards. The auctioneer section was shared by Bonhams, one of The Big Three, and Chiswick Auctions, which is emerging as a cheeky challenger to the giants – it has just opened up in South Ken and, in the wake of Christie’s abandoning its operations there, has adopted the acronym CSK. Eat your heart out, Christies!

In the dealer category, there was a very popular award to Priestley & Ferraro. David Priestley took the award which came directly as a result of their stunning display of Early Chinese Carved Cinnabar Lacquer entitled The Deeper Picture and which ran through AAL in the lower floor of their premises in St James’s.

20171109_201944

David Priestley clutches his well deserved Dealer Award at Thursday evening’s Asian Art in London 20th Birthday party. Pictured with Roger Keverne and the Editor of Apollo Magazine, Thomas Marks.    Photo Paul Harris

Asian Art in London is in full swing aged 20

The annual celebration Asian Art in London is currently in full swing and visitors are clearly enjoying the 20th anniversary of the event. Doubtless the 21st next year will be equally as enthusiastically celebrated, if not more!

There is the usual mix of private gallery exhibitions, open evenings, auctions of Asian art and public events. For some, the highlight is the champagne reception on the evening of Thursday November 9. This year it takes place in the auguste surroundings of The British Museum, in the newly inaugurated Joseph Hutong Gallery. This exhibition space seems bound to be a long lasting hit with Asian art lovers.

This weekend we shall be posting news and pictures from AAL.