Reflections on Asian Art in London

I have just completed three days in London for the eponymous Asian Art in London. Phew!!! as characters in comics tend to observe. My mind is full of images: painted images, grand porcelain, beautiful decorative objects and exquisite miniature items of jade, cinnabar lacquer and pottery. It is difficult to believe that there can be so many beautiful objects in the world.

I guess I went into thirty or forty galleries holding either stock exhibitions or special exhibitions. In some cases, the owners had either partially or wholly vacated their premises to provide a temporary home for foreign exhibitors. But, in most places, it was the time to trundle out your best wares, put your best foot forward and show off. The whole thing seemed terribly worth while. But it was clear that the place to be was Mayfair or, just across Piccadilly, St James’s. There, during the first few days, the pavements seemed to be thronged with foreign buyers, usually in small groups and overwhelmingly Chinese.

The second best place to be was Kensington Church Street with half a dozen specialist galleries showing particularly interesting stock. And, of course, it is not too far away from the un-missable ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 at the V&A.

For those on the peripheries, it was clearly slimmer pickings but in St. James’s and Mayfair you could monitor (from a discrete distance, of course) the pattern, and sometimes pantomime, of complex cross-cultural negotiations. At Sotheby’s in New Bond Street, at the front reception desk, two Chinese buyers make to leave with the catalogue for the following day’s sale. They are arrested in their progress by the posh English voice of one of the receptionists, ‘That will be £25 please.’ ‘We have to pay?’ is the incredulous response. The catalogue is returned to the desk and they leave. I recognise one as a serious buyer . . .

At a gallery, an object in the low five figure range appears to have been successfully negotiated and an American Express card is proffered. ‘Oh, I’m awfully sorry but we don’t take credit cards – either cash or bank transfer.’ Puzzled looks and furrowed brows. ‘What this bank transfer?’ Bank transfers are not terribly well known in China. The frustrated purchasers leave with the vendor’s bank details but I very much doubt whether they will ever be used. The purchase is dead once the customer leaves the gallery empty handed.

I knew nothing about the Chinese way of business when I arrived there in 2001. But I did when I left three years later. Of course by that time I had acquired a Chinese wife and a lot of porcelain. The two were not unconnected. I would like to think I understand rather well the very special and specific needs and attitudes of the Chinese buyer . . .  If you don’t, it is virtually impossible to sell to the Chinese.

The exhibitions which stand out for me are the niche ones. I was delighted by Kaikodo’s Fans of Chinese Painting in a small upstairs room in Old Bond Street. Around thirty exquisite fans from the 14th century to the present day featured, ranging in price from around £8,000 for modern examples to more than 100,000 for rather older examples – I particularly like a Fang Congyi (ca. 1300-1379). Kaikodo was founded in 1983 in Japan (the American owners lived there for 25 years) and moved to 64th Street in New York City in 1996. The operation expanded out of the purely Japanese into Chinese. Every year a rather magnificent Journal is published detailing objects discovered and for sale.

fan26 Fan from Kokaido

One of my favourites has to be Ben Janssen’s Chinese Boxes which was a delightful exposition of the art of the box in sundry media from huanghuali to cinnabar lacquer. I have a soft spot, so to speak, for the increasingly popular cinnabar lacquer small pieces. There were some delightful boxes which brought me to regretting the cinnabar lacquer things I have sold . . .

ChineseBox-Be Janssen Porcelain box at Ben Janssens

Completely new for me were the charming little exhibits in Ko-sometsuke: Chinese Porcelain for the Japanese Market at Jorge Welsh’s Gallery in Kensington Church Street. This represented a painstakingly long odyssey on Jorge’s part in sourcing and building a collection of this very special ware from the early 17th century. Made to Japanese taste, these exquisite porcelain pieces, many created in the shapes of animals and fish, were used in the Japanese tea ceremony.

Catalogue_cover-333x420 Jorge Welsh

Very different from these delicate little objects were the contemporary paintings on view from Michael Goedhuis above Malletts in Dover Street. Delicacy could hardly be the word for The Avant-Garde in China: Ink, Painting and Sculpture. But there were several very dramatic works on show, some also large in scale. I was captivated by the magnificent graphite work by Qiu Jie titled Lijiang (2011). Qiu Jie was born in 1961 and grew up during the bitter years of the Cultural Revolution. As it happens, so did my wife and she was deeply moulded by experiences of that time when homes, art and people were destroyed by the Red Guards. This deeply satirical work, executed with superb draughtsmanship and piercing vision, says much about China and its development over the last thirty or forty years. It deserves to end up in a Museum. A big one.

Michael Goedhuis exhibit482 Qiu Jie at Michael Goedhuis

And back to those niche objects. A wonderful selection of Chinese stands (you can see them at www.chinesestands.com) were to be seen at Fleur de Lys Antiquites in Kensington Church Street. Here Ms Laurence Paul presides over elegant jades and porcelain pieces, not to mention a collection of more than 500 stands ranging in price from £100 to £20,000. Once you’ve lavished thousands, or more, on that very special vase, we all know what you need to show it off to the best advantage . . .

Of course, the theme of Asian Art in London is wider than the field of Chinese art, although it tends to dominate because of the concentration of money in today’s China. The occasion did give me chance, however, to go and see Raquelle Azran’s fine exhibition World’s of Paper and Wood at the Store Street Gallery. She has been twenty years collecting, curating and selling Vietnamese contemporary art (by comparison I have been at for a mere ten years!).  It is still an under-collected area. Perhaps that is all to the good so those of us in the know can continue to indulge ourselves at reasonable price levels.

 

 

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