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    Da Vinci Meets the Ming Masters

    Two new shows bridging Chinese and Western art have been hits with museumgoers, but does their “dialogue”-centric approach make sense?
    Jan 19, 2024#arts

    From ancient Egyptian mummies to the dazzling cave walls of Dunhuang, Caravaggio to Matisse, late 2023 was a good time for museumgoers in Shanghai. But some of the most talked-about shows have foregrounded not just one artist or era but “dialogues” between Chinese and global art.

    That includes “Who Is Leonardo da Vinci?: Dialogue Between Renaissance and Chinese Painting,” jointly organized by the Shanghai Museum with the Treccani Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia, and “Glory of Bronze Civilization” at Shanghai University, which pairs bronze-age relics from the Sanxingdui site in southwest China with pieces by famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

    These may seem like odd pairings. To start, Rodin lived almost 3,000 years after the Sanxingdui culture vanished from the archaeological record and died roughly a decade before its first relics were unearthed in the Chinese province of Sichuan. But the shows have clearly struck a chord with Chinese museumgoers. What explains their popularity? And can the dialogue format help China’s smaller museums, many of which own little, if any, non-Chinese art, better utilize the resources at their disposal to offer visitors a global perspective?

    At first glance, the “Who Is Leonardo da Vinci?” exhibition seems heavily reminiscent of the candy-colored, social media-friendly art spaces that have proliferated nationwide in recent years. Walk in, and the first thing you’ll see are macaron-colored walls of blue, pink, and orange.

    Things improve quickly in the interconnected exhibition halls, however. Headlining the show and dominating the hall’s central axis are 18 works of the Italian Renaissance, including da Vinci’s “La Scapigliata,” or “The Lady With Disheveled Hair.” The surrounding rooms feature an additional 18 Chinese paintings selected from the Shanghai Museum’s permanent collection, most of them from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

    According to Ling Lizhong, a curator of the exhibition and director of the museum’s Painting and Calligraphy Research Department, the show is China’s first “truly meaningful East-West painting dialogue exhibition.” Qualifiers aside, the presence of a real da Vinci is a big get for a Chinese museum — and selecting works from the museum’s own collection capable of holding their own across from the Italian master was no easy task.

    Ling and the rest of the curatorial team largely rose to the challenge. Their most satisfying choice was “Lady With Fan in the Autumn Breeze,” a representative work of the Ming dynasty literatus Tang Yin, who went by the courtesy name Bohu. The inclusion of Tang’s painting was a canny one: Tang and da Vinci were both born in the second half of the 15th century and lived in the most prosperous regions of their respective homelands. And while he does not enjoy the same level of fame as da Vinci, Tang is one of early modern China’s best-known painters and his work is popular among the Chinese public.

    More to the point, “Lady With Fan” and “The Lady With Disheveled Hair” both depict beautiful women, even as their techniques point to key differences between Chinese and Western painting styles.

    “Da Vinci was not only an artist but also a scientist,” Ling said in an interview. “In ‘The Lady With Disheveled Hair,’ he uses fine wavy strokes to outline the contours of the woman’s hair, creating the appearance of it floating in the wind — a hallmark of da Vinci’s distinctive brushwork. Meanwhile, ‘Lady With Fan in the Autumn Breeze’ is a masterpiece from Tang Yin’s later years in which he metaphorically depicts himself as a melancholic woman lamenting the ups and downs of life.”

    “It can be said that da Vinci painted the ‘other,’ while Tang Bohu painted himself,” Ling explained.

    Interestingly, the curatorial team did not feature the two works side by side, instead placing “The Lady With Disheveled Hair” at the center of the hall and “Lady With Fan” behind it, just visible through a petal-shaped window in the wall. It’s a clever nod to the design of classical gardens in the Jiangnan region of eastern China, where Tang lived, as well as an homage to the techniques of perspective pioneered by artists of the Western Renaissance.

    Relative to the da Vinci show, which looks at trends in art from two parts of the world around the turn of the 15th century, “Glory of Bronze Civilization,” hosted by Shanghai University with the assistance of the Sichuan Provincial Relics Bureau, feels harder to justify. What connections can realistically be drawn between the admittedly striking 3,000-year-old artifacts unearthed at the Sanxingdui site and a French sculptor who lived his whole life without ever seeing or even hearing of them?

    Yet, despite having already had the chance to see several exhibitions of Sanxingdui artifacts in Shanghai over the past two to three years, “Glory of Bronze Civilization” proved a surprise hit with the city’s museumgoers, becoming the most popular exhibition held by the Shanghai University Museum in the three years since it opened.

    One of the curators of the exhibition, Ma Lin, told me that her goal for the show was to explore the cross-cultural and cross-temporal links between Sanxingdui artifacts and Rodin’s works. In her view, despite their obvious differences, the Sanxingdui artifacts and Rodin’s sculptures exhibit similarities in terms of creativity, cultural significance, and depth, as well as their artistic style and techniques.

    Making this case required the curators to take a heavy hand, but the results are surprisingly convincing. Ma ultimately divided the exhibition into three units: “Nature,” “Human,” and “God.” The first section juxtaposes animal-shaped bronze artifacts from Sanxingdui with Rodin’s mythological works. The second section sees Rodin’s human sculptures displayed alongside human-shaped bronze artifacts from Sanxingdui, while the third delves into the mythological and religious elements of both sides of the exhibition.

    The second section, “Human,” is the show’s high point. Rodin excelled at sculpting the human body, and one of the unique aspects of Sanxingdui culture, relative to contemporaneous cultures elsewhere in China, is their direct casting of human figures. Viewing an otherworldly bronze head with a golden mask unearthed from Sanxingdui side by side with Rodin’s “Helmeted Minerva” is therefore a powerful testament to art’s ability to speak through the ages.

    Not everyone is thrilled by the popularity of these dialogue-based exhibitions, of course. One well-known critic noted that the majority of the links drawn between the Western Renaissance and Ming dynasty art in the da Vinci show were superficial at best, and the chosen works insufficient to make the curators’ case.

    But even if these criticisms are well-founded, it’s hard to deny the shows’ appeal. The power of their approach lies in their accessibility and ability to capture the public’s imagination. The artists never met, and the curators can only hint at the connections between them — the real dialogue is in the eye of the beholder.

    (Header image: Visuals from Shanghai Museum and VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)