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French Masters Make Grand Impression

The country's greatest exhibition of French Impressionism paintings opened on Monday at the National Art Museum of China in the capital, Beijing.

The collection includes works by Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renior, Camille Pissarro, Afred Sisley, Frederic Bazille, Berthe Morisot, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne.

The outstanding paintings are matched by their insurance value -- 5 billion euros or US$6.02 billion.

But though the public anticipated the exhibition with enormous enthusiasm, some Chinese artists and critics said the Impressionists' masterpieces have arrived "20 years too late to make impacts on the contemporary Chinese art."

The exhibition is part of the "Year of France in China," a Sino-French cultural exchange event which was officially launched on Sunday.

The display will run until November 24 in Beijing, and will then move to the Shanghai Art Museum from December 8 to January 25, 2005, and then onto Hong Kong Art Museum from February 5 to April 10 next year.

Of the 50 works, 38 are part of the collection of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, 11 others are from other French museums, and one from the Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton Group, which is sponsoring the exhibitions in China.

"Many Chinese at my age have been familiar with some of the exhibits since childhood. The pictures were printed in our school textbooks, and it's so cool to see the real ones," said Li He, 27, a reporter with a Beijing-based newspaper who was among the first visitors.

The exhibition is in five parts, said Feng Yuan, director of the museum and who is one of the co-curators of the exhibition.

The first part is about the appearance of the Impressionism between around 1867 and 1886 and involves pioneers such as Eugene Boudin, Stanislas Lepine and the Dutch Jongkind.

The second stage is about Edouard Manet, the established painter whose work in the 1860s greatly influenced Monet and others of the group, and who himself adopted the Impressionist approach around 1873.

The third includes landscapes by Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, the fourth features portraits by Edgar Degas and Frederic Bazille, and the fifth is about Impressionism at the beginning of the 20th century, illustrated by works of Monet and Cezanne.

"We have presented Impressionism in China because it shows the essence of the French spirit, that is, of romanticism and freedom," said Serge Lemoine, president of the Musee d'Orsay who is also a co-curator of the exhibition.

"Impressionism is an art movement that happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the West, chiefly in France. It's so important to art history that it brought about a fundamental change to Western art and also had an impact on Chinese art," he added.

He believed the Chinese public would find it easy to accept Impressionism because it involved elements of Chinese art.

"Since the 16th century there have been such elements in the Western art, and in the 18th century Chinese people, clothes and architectures appeared in French paintings," he told China Daily.

"In 1850, some ancient Chinese paintings were re-discovered in France. The Impressionists, including Monet and Degas, were greatly influenced by the Chinese paintings and Japanese prints, as can be seen in Degas' 'Dancing Class' and 'The Cafe' on display," he said.

A style similar to Impressionism has come into existence in China since the 11th century, said Yuan Yunsheng, professor with the oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and who is also the exhibition's co-curator.

"Both Monet and 11th-century Chinese artist Mi Fu used small strokes to depict the space and the method has been handed down in Chinese Literati Paintings," he said.

"They are different in that the former used unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light while the latter applied ink strokes to create a mood.

"Their difference is fundamental between Western and Eastern art. Monet attempted to accurately and objectively record visual reality in terms of transient effects of light and colour, but Mi Fu tried to capture his reflections of the nature," said the professor.

The works are expected to attract more than 5,000 people per day, said director Feng.

"We want the exhibition to see the largest number of visitors since the national art museum re-opened to the public after refurbishing last May," he said.

He pledged that his museum will keep the number below 8,000 to prevent damaging the artworks. Too many people can affect the atmosphere and cause damaging moisture.


However, among all the excitement, some with China's art community are not that impressed.

"Things would have been totally different if the great works arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fancy the changes they could have brought to the Chinese art today!" said a Beijing-based art editor who declined to give his name.

"But because the leading artists and critics have all seen them in the Musee d'Orsay, so there cannot be such a 'big bang' affect as a similar show could have brought 20 years before. Today, we want to see artworks on the cutting edge -- those artworks involving creative ideas and retrospections of the modern world," he said.

(China Daily October 14, 2004)

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