French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts

Wang Jie
In recent years, a variety of French art exhibitions has delighted art lovers in Shanghai with the West Bund Museum, open to the public since 2019.
Wang Jie
French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts

Claude Monet's "The Saint-Lazare Station."

Paris has always been the "muse of art" in the minds of people in Shanghai.

Some local art lovers will recall the long queue at the entrance of Shanghai Museum in 2004. It was the first time that a strong collection from The Centre Pompidou and the masterpieces of French Impressionism had been exhibited in the city.

"It was also in 2004 that the Chinese Rouge wrapped up around the Eiffel Tower," said Zhang Qin, former director at the museum, "Actually there are some similarities between the Chinese and French nations, which might explain the curiosity and adoration for each."

Since 2004, the opportunities for local art lovers to access French art have increased.

"Once French Impressionism comes, long queue awaits in Shanghai," is a saying that has prevailed in the local art community for several decades.

French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts

A visitor admires masterpieces of the French artist Claude Monet in the art musemn of K11 shopping mall.

Following the 2004 exhibition, there were similar scenes in 2014 when 40 Monet masterpieces plus 15 canvases created by other impressionists arrived at K11, a downtown shopping mall.

The 100-day exhibition received 400,000 visitors, beyond the expectation of Xie Dingwei, executive director at the Bund One Art Museum and organizer of the Monet show.

Xie remembers the excitement of local art lovers. "Frankly speaking, the venue was not perfect. It was in the underground exhibition space of K11, yet it didn't hinder the passion from visitors to view Monet's original 'Garden' series at all."

Xie said the colors and subjects that Monet painted on canvas unwittingly catered for the aesthetics of most people.

"French Impressionism is a pinnacle, which opened a door for modern art and later developed to contemporary art," Xie said.

Xie brought two more French Impressionism exhibitions in 2020 and 2021.

"The passion toward Impressionism never fades among the local art lovers."

French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts
Dong Jun

A view of the West Bund Museum.

French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts
Dong Jun

The facade of the West Bund museum.

However, in recent years, a variety of French art exhibitions other than Impressionism has frequented in town.

The West Bund Museum is one of the important venues to access French art.

Opened to the public in 2019 on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China and the 55th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-French diplomatic relations, the museum was designed by British architect David Chipperfield,

The Centre Pompidou × West Bund Museum Project is a museum cooperation project structured around an exhibition's program based on the collection of the Centre Pompidou – Musee National d'Art Moderne. It aims to boost cultural and artistic exchanges between China and France.

In the four years since its inception, the project has attracted nearly 2 million visitors, engaging them in witnessing close to 30 exhibitions and over a 1,000 public education activities.

"This is one of my favorite museums in Shanghai," said Opal Liu, a 40-something white collar worker, "West Bund Museum renders me an opportunity for a comprehensive introduction to modern and contemporary art."

The thrilling news is The Centre Pompidou and the West Bund Group have recently announced the renewal of their museum partnership for a further five years.

In the second five-year phase, The Center Pompidou and West Bund Museum will embrace a more expansive cultural perspective deepening collaboration on various aspects, and jointly shaping new possibilities in the realm of arts and culture.

French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts

"Tapestry The Woman with Lute," Donation of Henri Matisse, 1952, Musée Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambrésis

Great Chinese art has an influence on French art.

"If you take a close look at some of the works of Matisse, you could find the influence of Chinese calligraphy on his lines," said Feng Xiaoming, a Chinese French artist who settled in Paris in 1984.

Chinese art lovers in France may expect "Versailles and the Forbidden City" this year.

As a key project of the "Sino-French Year of Culture and Tourism," the exhibition was originally planned to be held in July 2020 at the Wenhua Hall of the Palace Museum. However, it was postponed several times due to the pandemic, and the exhibition period is now scheduled from April 1 to June 30.

French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts

"Two Young Women, The Yellow Dress and the Scottish Dress," The Centre Pompidou, Paris, National Museum of Modern Art Center for Industrial Creation Deposited at Musée Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambrésis

Taking the diplomatic, cultural and artistic exchanges between China and France from the second half of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century as its theme, the exhibition relies on the rich collections of the Palace of Versailles and other French museums to show the great attraction of Chinese culture to the French court and high society, as well as the creative inspiration that Chinese art brought to the French artists and intellectuals from a wide range of perspectives.

The exhibition will also feature a selection of clocks, scientific instruments, prints, porcelain, books and other precious artifacts from the Palace Museum's collection that visually reflect the exchanges between the two sides. They will be displayed in conjunction with the French collection, to jointly represent the efforts and achievements made by China and France during this period for the purpose of achieving mutual understanding and cultural exchanges, and to restore the grandeur of more than a century of cultural and artistic exchanges between the two countries.

The pioneering Chinese French artists perhaps are the best representatives of East-meets-West.

Nurtured under the traditional Chinese cultural and artistic background at an early stage, they furthered their study in the early 1930s in Paris where they broadened their art concepts and learned Parisian painting techniques. Because of such unique fusion, today most of them shine on the international art stage with an unshakable status in modern art history, such as Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Sanyu and Pan Yuliang.

French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts

"5.10.93" by Zao Wou-ki.

Zao Wou-ki

Zao is one of the most famous contemporary abstract oil painters both in China and France.

He studied painting at the China Academy of Art during the 1930s and taught at the academy during the 1940s. In 1948, Zao went to Paris to further his studies because he loved French Impressionism.

In 1949, after traveling around the world, Zao returned to Paris, fusing Western abstract painting with the ethereal imagery of the Chinese method of freehand painting. He then stepped into stardom in the art world. The then French President Jacques Chirac wrote a foreword for Zao's retrospective exhibition held in 1999 in Beijing.

"Zao Wou-ki has penetrated into the sensibility of our two great nations, and has made the two merge into one, belonging to both China and France. His art draws on the essence of our two cultures."


Born in Sichuan Province, Sanyu's family owned one of the largest silk-weaving mills in the country at the time. After studying in Shanghai, Sanyu visited Japan in 1919 and later France where he decided to settle.

In 1923 he set up a base in the Montparnasse area of Paris and met several avant-garde artists, members of the Ecole de Paris. Among the first generation of Chinese artists who went to France, Sanyu immersed himself in French culture. Unlike his compatriots Lin Fengmian and Xu Beihong, he chose to take up residency in the French capital.

Freedom was what the artist pursued all his life. He showed a particular interest in depicting nudity and began painting nudes on canvas from 1929.

Sanyu's life was filled with ups and downs, and the one-time Chinese "playboy" was later a poor artist. When he died in 1966, only a handful of Parisian collectors knew of him. However, Sanyu's reputation in China and Southeast Asia started to grow from the 1990s. Today his paintings often fetch astronomic figures at auction and his value as an ardent artist is widely recognized.

French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts

"Nude on Tapestry" by Sanyu, oil on canvas painted in 1929.

Pan Yuliang

Pan was born in Anhui Province in 1895. Her parents both died when she was a child. When she was 14, her uncle sold her to a brothel. In 1916, a local customs officer, named Pan Zanhua, bought her out of the brothel.

She went with Pan to Shanghai to study, renaming herself as Pan Yuliang. In 1918, she passed the exams and entered Shanghai Art School to learn Western painting.

After graduating from Shanghai Art School, she went to France to study in Lyon and Paris, sponsored by Pan Zanhua.

She held a personal exhibition in Shanghai, honored as the first Chinese female western painting artist. She was also invited to be a professor of the Art Department of the Central University of Nanjing.

French art makes a lasting impression on local enthusiasts

"Moonlight Sonata" by Pan Yuliang.

She left Shanghai for France again in 1937, and settled down in Paris.

She was selected by the overseas Chinese artists in France to be chairman of the Chinese Art Association, and her works were often exhibited in France as well as in Britain, the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Greece.

In 1959, Pan Yuliang was awarded the Paris Gold Prize and the Belgium Silver Prize.

Her painting style is basically based on the Impressionist technique of external light, and then fused with her own feelings and talents. Her canvasses are not delicate, but a bit "ruthless."

Her brushwork is bold and clean. Impressionist techniques and oriental artistic sensibilities are the two roots of the evolution of her paintings, which have shaped the trajectory of her artistic development.

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