It is much more pleasant for one to share music with others than to enjoy it alone, said philosopher Mencius (385-304 BC). Mexican business tycoon Juan Anotonio Perez Simon may not have heard the Chinese saying but "what he offers to fans of European art at the Beijing World Art Museum is in the spirit of the Mencius doctrine," says the museum's curator Wang Limei.
Having shown his collection in many of the world's most prestigious art museums, the famed art connoisseur and his Juntos Actuandos foundation have brought at least 100 oil paintings to art enthusiasts in Asia for the first time, without asking for any payback, according to Wang.
Nineteenth century European masterpieces are now showing at the Beijing World Art Museum. Jiang Dong
Wang flew to Mexico last year to select exhibits from Juan Antonio Perez Simon's private collection of more than 3,000 artworks.
Featuring paintings, sculpture, drawings, the decorative arts, and manuscripts from the 14th to the 19th centuries, the Mexican collection is widely considered one of the most significant private art collections in the Americas by art historians.
Aesthetic rigor and the careful selection of works, as well as the unique personality and tastes of the collection's owner, are the characteristics that define the Perez Simon collection.
Among its particular traits are a clear interest in female beauty, nature, scenes from daily life that juxtapose earthly pleasures with the ephemeral nature of existence, as found in still lives, and a fascination with the use of light and color, principally in the transition from academic painting to modern art, experts say.
Therefore, "it is a rare opportunity for Chinese viewers to savor these top quality oil paintings of 19th century Europe that, in my view, are as precious and excellent as masterpieces housed at the Louvre, the British Museum, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art," says Shao Dazhen, a veteran art historian with the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
The 19th century was a time when diverse art forms including neoclassicism, academic and Pre-Raphaelite art blossomed, points out Zhu Qingsheng, an art professor with Peking University.
"The exhibition offers not only a feast for the eyes for common viewers but also a chance for Chinese artists to rethink European art and its relevance to contemporary art," Zhu says.
Though China has had exhibitions on the 19th century before, they have focused on Impressionism.
Of the 40 featured master painters, including Albert Joseph Moore, Frederick Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, most will be unfamiliar to local viewers and their works have come to China for the first time, organizers say.
The exhibition's pride of place was given to Albert Joseph Moore's 1868 work A Quartet: A Painter's Tribute to the Art of Music.
Moore was a leading artist of the Aesthetic Movement. The relationship between art and music is a favorite theme for Moore, a keen amateur musician who admired Handel and Bach.
The eye-catching oil painting, hung at the entrance to the exhibition, depicts four male figures clad in classical drapery and with trance-like expressions playing the instruments of a modern string quartet, accompanied by three graceful maidens in typical Greek attire.
The painting uses areas of subtly related coloring to provide an equivalent of the harmonic relations of notes in a chord; yellow, pink, flesh tones, and cream are perfectly blended and juxtaposed.
Other highlights of the exhibition include British painter and sculptor Frederick Lord Leighton's 1871 work Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by Sea, and Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema's The Rose of Heliogabalus.
In his paintings, Lord Leighton often masterfully evoked a mood of nostalgia for the Golden Age of ancient Greece that appeals to audiences, and this talent is revealed in Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea.
The artist deftly conjured up confections to delight the eyes and refresh the spirit, critics say.
A masterpiece of decorative charm, Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea carries no real subject, no heavy message but instead features a lovely group of women arranged in a pleasing and harmonious composition.
It is the clothing worn by the four women that establishes the ancient setting, as the fluttering draperies are inspired by Greek garments.
Leighton has used bright, warm colors in the draperies, ranging from a delicate ivory to a rich russet. These earth tones contrast beautifully with the soft blues of the water.
Entitled From Academia to Impressionism - Masterpieces of the 19th Century European Paintings from the Perez Simon Collection, the show is running through June 8 in Beijing and then will move to Shanghai, Changsha of Hunan province, and finally Guangzhou of Guangdong province, before heading home next March.
(China Daily March 11, 2008)