An unprecedented project in France celebrates Chinese art

Events at the two most prestigious venues in Strasbourg celebrate Chinese art and its influence in Europe, ahead of the 90th anniversary of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

An exhibition paying tribute to Lin Fengmian, first president of China Academy of Art, is held at the Haute école des arts du Rhin in Strasbourg.

In an unprecedented move, two united events were held at the two most prominent venues in the historic French city of Strasbourg — both curated by artists from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

“Shanshui: a Cosmotechnics” at the Palais du Rhin (Palace of the Rhine), the former imperial palace built during the 19th century, opened on December 2 with 29 large and small screens playing videos of waterfalls and mountains.

It is a real landscape escape.

Along with the live theater “Century: A Proposal” in the atrium of the Marc Bloch University of Strasbourg, it is part of a broader project called “Future Media/Art Manifesto.” The two exhibitions ended on December 10.

University of Strasbourg President Michel Deneken described the project as unprecedented in his opening speech.

No person or organization had held simultaneous events in both of the prestigious venues for hundreds of years.

The event is also a tribute to the China Academy of Art’s 90th anniversary next year, and to a history that may not be very well known even to many Chinese.

Back in 1928, a new art institution which was the precursor of the China Academy of Art was founded in Hangzhou. The young artist Lin Fengmian was appointed as the first president of the school by Cai Yuanpei, the renowned educator who was then in charge of the education affairs of the Kuomintang government.

But it is in Strasbourg that Lin and Cai first met.

In 1924, the Exposition Chinoise d’art Ancien et Moderne (Exposition of Ancient and Modern Chinese Art) was held at the Palace of the Rhine.

Although ancient Chinese art and design were influencing Europe at the time, it was the first time a European audience actually saw the works of contemporary Chinese artists.

The exhibition lasted three months from May to July and it was intended as a rehearsal for the following year’s International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris.

A poster of the Exposition of Ancient and Modern Chinese Art, which was held in 1924 in Strasbourg, France

Notable start for young artist

Apart from the ancient China section displaying ink-wash paintings, crafts and antiques, the exhibition featured the work of 26 Chinese artists then studying art in France. Among them was the then 24-year-old Lin.

“Lin had more than 40 paintings on show at the exhibition,” said Yao Yuandongfang, executive director of Lin Fengmian Art Museum. “He was also head of the organizing committee. You can say in a way he was the actual curator of the show.”

Cai was also an important figure in the exhibition. His calligraphy was exhibited along with that of Chen Lu, the then Chinese ambassador to France.

More importantly, Cai and his good relations with the Chinese and French elites were very probably “factors in getting the Strasbourg show off the ground,” wrote Chinese art historian Craig Clunas.

Cai was a firm believer of art’s role in education and society as a whole. In his preface written for a catalogue for the 1924 exhibition, he expressed the need to integrate Chinese and European art.

He also emphasized the compatibility of art and science in his opening speech at the exhibition.

In many ways, Lin was a committed practitioner of Cai’s ideal, both as an artist and as an educator during his presidency in Hangzhou.

“He truly believed that art and art education can save the nation. And he introduced the form of art salon to China and he was also highly engaged in the art movement,” Yao told Shanghai Daily.

The 1924 exhibition therefore was not only a prelude to a prominent art institution in China but also to modern Chinese art education and art practices.

And “century” is indeed another keyword featured in the 2017 project in Strasbourg.

The atrium in the university named after historian Marc Bloch has been transformed into a live theater.

Twelve speakers, including the project's chief, China Academy of Art Vice President Gao Shiming, stood in front of a long table engraved with all the years in the 20th century.

Each made a retrospective speech on important events or phenomena from a certain year, such as the Russian revolution in 1917 or end of the cold war in 1989, as images were displayed on giant screens behind them.

Gao was assigned to speak about the year 1924 when the Exposition of Ancient and Modern Chinese Art was held in France.

Others invited included Egyptian-French Marxist economist Samir Amin, French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, German media theorist Siegfried Zielinski, Hong Kong curator Chang Tsong-zung, and Dutch theorist on network cultures Geert Lovink.

“For me art should always be understood in a context larger than art. Everyone can be an artist. The important thing is the artistic moment,” Gao told Shanghai Daily. 

Gao believes that only when art is defined no longer in its narrow sense, art institutions like China Academy of Art will be able to exert more influence on society.

As the harbinger of the academy’s 90th anniversary, “Future Media/Art Manifesto” is actually a five-year plan with “Shanshui” and “Century” being developed into two separate postgraduate programs in the future.

“Shanshui” will be the concept governing practices on video/sound art and installations, while “Century” will comprise research courses about contemporary art history and theories of art, media, sociology and philosophy in general.

“My hopes are that we have inherited the aspirations of Lin Fengmian and Cai Yuanpei, who drew the blueprint of our academy almost a century ago,” said Gao.

But this time there is no division between ancient and modern, between China and the world.

If in 1924 it was China and Chinese artists trying to speak for themselves, the 2017 project foresees a future that is embraced by all.

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