The exhibition Italian Renaissance Drawings: A Dialogue with China currently on view at the M_WOODS museum in Beijing is an important showcase of Old Master drawings presented by the British Museum. As China remains more or less closed off to the rest of the world, our projects director Yuan Fang took this opportunity to talk to Wanwan Lei, who in 2014 founded M_WOODS with her husband Lin Han. Below are the texts gathered over a string of WeChat messages exchanged over the past few weeks.
Yuan Fang: Let me begin with a flashback to a dinner you, Lin Han and I had back in 2014, at a Yunnan restaurant tucked away in a hutong in central Beijing. We talked about ancient Chinese Buddhist sculptures and spirituality in art across different cultures, then Kandinsky’s treatise on the subject. Some time after eating the crossing-the-bridge noodles, Hieronymus Bosch came into the conversation and we lingered there until the restaurant was about to close. A few months later, you ended up travelling to s’Hertogenbosch for Bosch’s 500 year anniversary exhibition and you made Spirituality the theme of an exhibition at M_WOODS.
This vignette remains vivid in my memory even though it’s been five years since I left China to launch our current gallery. Over the years I have been delighted to see the breadth of your interest take the exhibition programme at M_WOODS in excitingly varied directions: you have put on several important Western artists’ monographic shows, including that of David Hockney (in association with Tate Modern) and Giorgio Morandi for the first time in China. So let’s talk about your current exhibition on Italian Renaissance drawings with the British Museum – your first major presentation of European art from before the 20th century. How did the idea come about?
Wanwan Lei: Although the Italian Renaissance seems far away from us in both time and space, its influence on us, on our understanding of art, both in the West and in the East, is important. The Renaissance was not a re-creation of ancient Greek and Roman cultural and artistic styles in a superficial sense, but rather a re-presentation of man’s creation of culture and art by bringing together multiple artistic disciplines of architecture, painting, sculpture, theatre and music under an architectural and cultural vehicle. M_WOODS with the British Museum aims to introduce Italian Renaissance painting on paper to Chinese audiences, presenting works by many of the great Renaissance artists in the British Museum’s collection, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael.
On view at M_WOODS
Yuan: I remember in 2016 the British Museum loaned a great selection of their Renaissance drawings to the Suzhou Museum for an exhibition instigated by the artist Liu Dan, a master in his own right whose work derives inspiration from the Renaissance. How does your current show with the British Museum differ from it?
Wanwan: What sets us apart is the cross-cultural theme of our show, which is reflected in the title Italian Renaissance Paintings on Paper: A Dialogue with China. Perhaps for the first time in history, these works are juxtaposed with contemporary Chinese art and viewers are invited to explore the important connections between the Western Renaissance and China across time and space. The central idea of Dialogue with China is that the different understandings and interpretations of the themes of each unit by contemporary Chinese artists are placed in dialogue with the works of the Renaissance in that unit in the same space, a dialogue that is a first for the British Museum and for the works of the Italian Renaissance, and one that expands on our existing understanding of the Italian Renaissance.
Yuan: Can you highlight an example of the dialogues in play?
Wanwan: In a section dedicated to the ‘narrative’, we exhibit a monumental painting by Liu Xiaodong entitled Diary of an Empty City 2. It was painted in the summer of 2015 during Xiaodong’s travels to Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia that was a well-known ‘ghost city’ that went through a period of rapid urbanisation in the early 2000s. The work depicts a complex narrative between several figures in traditional Mongolian clothing composed on a hillside with two prominent horses illustrated in the Song Dynasty and Yuan Dynasty style, overlooking the vast urban development of the city below. Xiaodong was initially drawn to this notable “ghost city” for the disillusioned urban dream that it stood for – in his words, a “final battle between agricultural and industrial societies”. In the early 2000s, Ordos went through an accelerated urbanisation — a type of industrial renaissance in its own right. This ambitious development, however, did not immediately materialise, which resulted in an empty city of advanced infrastructure, enough to sustain a million residents, but with only a population of 20,000 inhabitants.
In the same room we show an important red chalk drawing by Sodoma, St. George Killing the Dragon (1518). The tension between nature, humanity and divinity resonates with Xiaodong’s contemporary observation of the clash between the traditional nomadic way of life and modern industrialization.
Yuan: In recent years, we are seeing a number of high-calibre loan exhibitions dedicated to classical European art in China, sometimes taking place in private museums. I was really surprised to discover in Bergamo this summer that some of the best known works from the Accademia di Carrara had gone to the Bund One Art Museum in Shanghai. And to me, the thematic presentation of Tate Modern’s artworks at the current Pudong Museum of Art in Shanghai seemed to signal that the local audience was ready for something more than just a basic introduction to a Western art historical period or concept. What do you see as the advantage of putting on such shows in private museums in China? Is there a particular exhibition of Old Masters in China that you enjoyed (could be in a State-owned museum or private)?
Wanwan: Private museums are often more of a private design and experience, picking and choosing from grand, vague discourses and exploring the rich possibilities of narrating history in their own way; it might be a statue, a painting, a handprint, or even just a few fragments that are enough to tell a story of time and space. Today, most people in China still can’t easily fly to the UK or Italy to see the Western art that they have become familiar with through books or popular culture. As you say, there has been a proliferation of private museums in Shanghai in recent years and I believe that an important role they play is to bring art closer and more accessible to the general public. Good things, classic things, need to be spread to the world, and we are the bridge that facilitates that spread, showing the public the beauty of art through our unique way of understanding.
I particularly enjoyed the special exhibition of Zhao Mengfu’s calligraphy and painting at the National Palace Museum in ’17. Firstly, the title of the exhibition was very interesting. Usually exhibitions have a big title, such as A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains: A Special Exhibition of Qing and Green Landscape Paintings of All Ages, while the big title of that exhibition was Mr Zhao Mengfu’s name. I find it difficult to sum up his achievements. At least in the art of painting and calligraphy, Mr. Zhao Mengfu is indeed an unparalleled all-rounder. In particular, I very much enjoyed the painting of a water township exhibited by Mr. Zhao Mengfu. This painting depicts the flat and open landscape of the water countryside in Jiangnan in pure ink and wash. The landscape unfolds in a flat and distant form, with loose and subtle brushwork and a strong sense of ‘writing’, reflecting Zhao Mengfu’s aesthetic interest in calligraphy.
Yuan: Ah, I like your take on the term ‘Old Masters’! The Western-centric narrative of art history has certainly become the standard way of thinking in the art market. Speaking of a global perspective – how has your experience of living in New York shaped your vision in the programming of M_WOODS? Could you share with us some memories of people, exhibitions or other aspects of life that made a lasting impact on your collecting journey?
Wanwan: Everyone has a map of the city, and an art gallery is one of the important spaces on that map. It would be a shame to come to New York and not visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art and other private galleries, large and small. As a beautiful cultural landscape of the city, they are a visual identity and an emotional memory of the city that is cemented in the flow of colour and light over time.
When in New York, my all-time favorite for Old Masters was the Frick Collection. The male portrait of Bronzino, the Ingres, Vermeer were some of the pieces I would repeatedly visit, just like often seeing some good old friends. I have noticed that when looking at a good painting, it is impossible to remember all the details and the memory fades with time; and every time I see these details again, I always discover something new, something I haven’t noticed before.
Yuan: I’d be curious to hear how you like seeing your ‘old friends’ at the new Frick Madison when you’re next in town! I gather you haven’t travelled much outside of China since early 2021 and are probably longing to get going again. What are some of your favorite (European) Old Master museums? Can you share with us a memorable experience of one of these visits?