Brian Salter's Blogs:
How did Artists Cope in the days before Photoshop?

 

I have to admit that I don’t know a huge amount about Art – but I tend to know what I like and dislike. Many is the time I have gone into an art gallery and come away feeling pleasantly surprised and glad I made the effort. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of my foray to the National Art Gallery in Beijing.

The National Art Museum of China (中国美术馆), to give it its proper name, is one of the largest art museums in the country and is dedicated to the collection, research and exhibitions of modern and contemporary artistic works.

Its construction started in 1958, and took four years. It is one of the “Great Ten Constructions” to mark the occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the Founding of the PRC. (Other structures dating from the same era are Tianan Men Square itself, along with the Great Hall of the People, the Military Museum and the National Museum).

As a showpiece of the newly installed communist government, the Gallery functioned mainly as a showcase of communist propaganda. In the 1950s and 60s the museum was filled with idealized depictions of Mao, the Red Guards, Chinese Olympic Heroes or other noteworthy model-citizen examples for the Masses.

From the outside, it is quite an impressive building with its roof decorated by yellow glazed tiles. I’ve walked past it on numerous occasions and always meant to go inside sometime… but you know how the best laid plans don’t always work out.

Anyway, some have dubbed the look and feel of it as “Stalinist” with Chinese characteristics. Its high multi-eaved roof section in the central portion is balanced on both sides by long corridors extending East and West. It covers an area of more than 18,000 square metres with 17 exhibition halls from the first floor to the fifth. And it’s all illuminated by special lamps that do not emit ultraviolet radiation that could damage the exhibited art works.

It’s said that the museum houses more than 100,000 pieces of various collections, around the establishment of new China. It also collects hundreds of foreign works. A German couple apparently even donated 117 pieces in 1999, including four oil paintings by Picasso. I wonder why….

Anyway, the day I go there I find an exhibition of Chinese paintings by Tang Yongli – a graduate from Hebei Normal University who taught for many years at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts and the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Well, surprise, surprise – there’s a picture of Chairman Mao…

Oh, surprise surprise, there’s another pic of Mao with some of his friends…

Perhaps I’d be more impressed if Mr Tang hadn’t thought fit to put a photo of each of the Chinese heroes he has made portraits of next to his drawings.

For if they are turning left, then so does his picture; if they are facing right, so does his picture. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, I could probably have produced just as good a likeness by scanning the photo into Photoshop and using the sketch function. Cynical? Moi? Surely not!

I find I get very quickly bored with Mr Tang’s three galleries stuffed full of Photoshop’d Chinese heroes and move on to find something else to whet my appetite. Ah, another surprise! A couple of galleries stuffed full of calligraphy. Well, maybe writing out a poem or three in painted brush strokes is clever stuff, but it doesn’t do much for me; so once again I am in search of something more uplifting…

Aha. What have we here? A couple of galleries featuring Constructivism in Europe… “From Malevich to Kandinsky”…

The exhibition,” we are told, “which features paintings, sculptures, drawings and collages from a German private collection, highlights the important contribution East European constructivism made to modern art especially in the early decades of the 20th century. Particularly Russia gave avant-garde its impulses which spread over Western Europe. The exhibition brings together a wide spectrum of important works by Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Aleksander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Otto Freundlich and other artists who were all involved in the complex process of the avant-garde movement.

OK! It’s official! Your favourite blogger is not only pig-ignorant but a philistine of the first order. Sorry, guys, but this is simply not for me. I go yet again in search of mental nourishment…

Perhaps I will strike lucky looking at photographs of construction in China?

I suppose construction can include Chinese buildings… and indeed these photographs, though nothing particularly out of the ordinary, are pleasant enough to look at…

Add in a few more Photoshop effects and some primary colours and you get some quite pleasing pictorial effects – I suppose…

I quite like this doctored photograph of the famous bridge at the Summer Palace – but only as I have never seen it under snow before. I wonder what has caused those mysterious circles?

Using Photoshop’s saturation controls can always be relied on to add interest to an otherwise unremarkable photo…

as can throwing in some goldfish into a frozen pond and using Photoshop’s feathering control…

but adding in a sunset on the north side of the Birds Nest? I don’t think so somehow! Call me a traditionalist, but I happen to like the sun setting in the west!

I move up to the fifth floor; the intervening floors are closed right now for renovation or the setting up of another exciting exhibition – I’m not quite sure. Here we have an exhibition of “Fine Folk Toys”, though what that’s got to do with art I’m not too sure.

Uh uh – just in case you didn’t see that sign properly, let me zoom in for you…

You’d think that someone somewhere would have bothered to make sure they could spell the name of the museum itself correctly, even if it isn’t in Chinese. The same mistake is proudly on display right through the entire building. I wonder if anyone actually got his (or her) bottom kicked for that? Oh come on – this is China FGS!

I read the justification for putting on this particular exhibition: Children love playing games as their natural instincts and toys are certainly the angles of children. Toys are not only the enlightening training aids to entertain and teach children, but also a source of character forming and wisdom cultivation. Comparing with current various kinds of toys, Chinese folk toys shows profound traditional cultural implication and folk-custom details with particular artistic form and represent the urgent hope of parents on cultivating their children to make achievements and gain outstanding talents.

I’m still none the wiser why this show takes up an entire floor of the art museum. Oh gawd – it goes on…

The purpose of Outstanding Talents (Treasure) from “Toys” Exhibition is displaying the series theme folk toys to improve the audiences’ deep understanding to traditional culture by showing them folk arts, make them interest in study in playing toys, keep them in good health, teach them knowledge, tell them what’s right and what’s wrong, enlighten their wisdom and make them value morals and set lofty aspirations to lay a solid foundation for realizing their grand life goal.

Nope. I’m still unclear why it’s here. But so as not to waste an opportunity of enlightening my wisdom, and setting lofty aspirations for myself, I go in anyway.

370 of the Museum’s 6000 toys have been selected for this exhibition “with careful planning and organization”. First up there’s a wall with kites hanging up on it. Some are even quite pretty. Maybe this is what they mean by art?

Or how about a few model armies of the Three Kingdoms period (no – they’re not that old… in fact they were made in 1987. Wow! That makes them … 25 years old! ) Actually I’m pretty sure L.U. would like them as he’s well into model armies …. But I digress…

There are also a whole load of pig pillows – circa 1987…

and cloth pigs … circa 1986 (spot the difference!)

and…errrr…that’s about it. Of course the children there can hardly contain their excitement, but they do so anyway … or is it that they have read the notices telling them not to chase and play around while blatancy is prohibited?

Oh, how I’d love to be blatant – but as I always do as I’m told, I struggle to keep my blatancy in check.

No. It’s no use. Unable to contain myself any longer, I break out of the Museum and head for the nearest subway station, which happens to be Dong Si (东四 – literally East Four) on line 5. On the platform there is a large area laid out to represent a game of Xiangqi (象棋) or “elephant game", often known in the West as Chinese Chess. Now that’s what I call art!