Monday, April 5, 2010

The Shanghai Show at the Asian Arts Museum

I fought my way bravely through the rains yesterday to enjoy Target Free Sunday at the Asian Arts Museum and see the Shanghai show. The advantage of this was that the place was practically empty, which of course was super.

I’ve already written about my experience of Shanghai. In my imagination it compares with Cairo as one of the two most fascinating cities in the world. But unlike Cairo, Shanghai for me is a historical locality which existed mainly during the Chinese Republic 1912-1949. Like Berlin in the 20's and 30's, Shanghai was a metropolis of the imagination that reached mythological proportions.

The great advantage of the current museum show is that it includes several drawings and paintings from the mercantile concessions and settlements of the 19th century. Buying and selling was handled largely by the compradors—wealthy Chinese middlemen. In this environment China and the West confronted each other culturally for the first time, and the art it produced is often fascinating.

Chinese artists discovered the joys of perspective, painted panoramic views of the big trading houses overlooking the Huangpu River, and made pictures of comely comprador wives, displaying pendulum clocks on their walls and Victorian sewing machines in their spacious living rooms.

After that, the show became progressively sparser. The glass case with the marvelous display of qibao—those slender silk dresses that young women wore—and the sexy poster art from the 30’s were great. A few fine paintings from the early years after the Revolution, but then it was pretty much over. Although you could go upstairs to the auditorium and see a couple classic Shanghai films.

There were surprisingly few photographs in the show, which seemed completely odd to me, since there must exist many thousands. Mao’s brilliant effort in organizing the Shanghai workers starting in the 1920’s was just barely indicated, and life during the Japanese occupation not at all.

In short, the show was little more than a quick stab into the dark heart of Shanghai—great at that level, and special fun on a rainy Sunday afternoon in San Francisco.

[Photo from] 

1 comment:

  1. This is a great review - and far more elegant than the graceless one by Baker in the Chron where he pouted that the show didn't make him "want to visit Shanghai." Ptooi on him. I found the show lacking as well but I suspect that they had too many pieces and too little space to show them in. This isn't the first time that I've regretted the Asian's decision to move to the Civic Center. There is just not much space to expand but I think that the politics behind the decision must have been lethal (Oh to have been an unseen observer at some of THOSE meetings!)