SHANGHAI – Now At the Asian Art Museum

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

From now until September 5th, the Asian Art Museum presents SHANGHAI, the first exhibition of its kind to explore the visual culture of one of the world’s most intriguing cities. Spanning the time period from Shanghai’s origins as a modest regional center to the dynamic, cosmopolitan, global powerhouse of today, the exhibition reflects upon the history of the city over the past 160 years, using art as its mirror. Drawn mainly from the collections of the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai History Museum, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Lu Xun Memorial Hall, and the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, the more than 130 artworks include trade oil paintings, Shanghai deco furniture and rugs, movie clips, revolutionary posters, and video and contemporary art installations. Shanghai is co-organized by the Shanghai Museum and the Asian Art Museum, with assistance from the Shanghai International Culture Association. The exhibition serves as the cornerstone of the Shanghai Celebration, a year-long festival hosted by San Francisco Bay Area cultural institutions honoring the region’s long-standing relationship with Shanghai.

Nanjing Road—From Series of Views of Shanghai, after 1932. Zhao Weimin

“The 2010 World Expo that opens in May is Shanghai’s coming-out party, the official debut as the city reclaims its position as a global powerhouse,” says Jay Xu, museum director. “The Asian Art Museum’s Shanghai exhibition was timed to coincide with this prominent international event. Only through understanding its tumultuous history, can one truly understand the progressive and stylish Shanghai of today.”

“No one can deny the dynamism of Shanghai. It is a blend of old and new, East and West, cutting-edge technology and traditional values,” says Michael Knight, senior curator of Chinese art. “A case-study in globalization, Shanghai derives its unique character from its welcoming of international influences and adaptation of them to complement local values and flavor. The Shanghai exhibition examines the effects of globalization using visual art as its lens.”

The Shanghai exhibition is divided into four broad sections providing an overview of the major cultural and historical developments in Shanghai: “Beginnings” (1850–1911), “High Times” (1912–1949), “Revolution” (1920–1976), and “Shanghai Today” (1980–present). “Beginnings” traces Shanghai’s rise from a modest regional center to a city of international prominence after its designation as a “Treaty Port” by Britain and China in the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing. “China Trade” oil paintings, Shanghai school paintings, and a series of lithographs present the city as the international economic hub that it became in a short time. “High Times” represents a dynamic era in Shanghai’s history, which many people consider a historic commercial and cultural height. Ink and oil paintings, posters, one-piece dresses called qipao, film clips, and Shanghai Deco furniture together capture the launching of a public romance with the city that continues today.

Vanity. From an 11-piece bedroom set. 1920–1935

The first historical and cultural subsection of the exhibition – “Beginnings” – is introduced upon entering the Osher Gallery. “Beginnings” introduces Shanghai as it was transformed from a modest regional center to an internationally prominent locale after its designation as a Treaty Port in 1842. In 1854, the Shanghai International Settlement – combining the British and American foreign concessions – was established, with its own system of self-governance that was effectively independent from China. In this special environment, which continued until 1943, Shanghai rapidly became a center for artistic production, with Chinese artists creating works for foreign, as well as domestic, consumption.

Covering the period from around the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, “High Times” occupies the remainder of Osher Gallery and continues into Hambrecht Gallery. The boundary between “Beginnings” and “High Times” is marked by a bronze tablet originally erected at the boundary of the American Settlement in Shanghai.

The Young Companion
, no. 101, January 1935.
“With the longest print run tor a pictorial magazine in nodern China (1926–1945), The Young Companion became a major influence on – and therefore an invaluable soure material of – Shanghai urban culture during the first half of the twentieth century.” (SHANGHAI: Art of the City, p. 136)

The second part of “High Times” includes the arts that bombarded the residents of Shanghai on a daily basis: fashion, film, posters, and other graphic arts. Faces of beautiful Chinese women appeared often in visual products exhibiting Shanghai modernity in the 1920s and 1930s. Two of the many examples on view in the exhibition are posters entitled Moonlight over Huangpu River and A Prosperous City That Never Sleeps, both by Yuan Xiutang (dates unknown). Each of these posters presents a woman, clothed and coiffed in the latest styles, lounging before a backdrop of the city’s skyline. Such a composition exemplifies a successful marketing strategy that linked 1) Shanghai with 2) modernity with 3) the Chinese woman. This triangular association was so prevalent in the city’s visual culture at this time that it compelled the following claim by writer Cao Juren (1900–1972): “Haipai (Shanghai-style) is like a modern girl.”

Moonlight Over Huangpu River, 1930s. Yuan Xiutang. Poster, chromolithograph.

Also included in this area are five qipao, a version of traditional Chinese women’s dress that was updated in Shanghai after the 1900s to be slender and form-fitting. This style was popularized by Shanghai socialites as well as glamorous courtesans. During the 1920s and 1930s Shanghai had one of the leading and most innovative film industries in the world, and film clips from that era, shown on a flat-screen monitor in this part of the exhibition, provide a sense of this genre and a context for the other items on view.

“High Times” continues across North Court in Hambrecht Gallery. Shanghai Deco furniture and carpets are displayed, as well as photographs of the deco interiors and exteriors of famous Shanghai buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. A pair of armchairs is remarkable in that the original fabric has survived largely intact. The bold swirling fabric in tangerine and fuchsia complements the curving lines on the hardwood and burl frames. Other art deco furniture presented include a six-piece bedroom suite, a dining room table with four chairs, and a cabinet, among others.

Arm chairs. 1920–1935

The next grouping of works looks backward to the 1930s and 1940s at early expressions of the reformist socialist impulses that eventually led to the revolution. The woodcut print artists of the time asserted that the medium could best serve “the people” as it was reproducible, affordable, and mobile. They increasingly pursued socialist agendas in their prints, tackling societal ills. A good example is a 1935 woodcut print entitled Roar, China! by Li Hua (1907–1994). The slogan “Roar, China!” had become an international rallying cry for the emancipation of all oppressed people. The phrase was representative of the anti-Imperialist mood gripping many countries in the 1920s and 1930s, and it highlighted China as the focus of this global mobilizing effort. The exhibition also includes a 1946 cartoon of Sanmao, the longest running comic strip in China, which like the woodcut prints was aimed to align visual art with populist concerns.

In print, perhaps the most ubiquitous products of the government’s visual enterprise were the large-format, colorful propaganda posters. The posters in the exhibition depict celebrations in Shanghai of the new Communist regime. Many of the posters on display were published by the Shanghai People’s Fine Art Publishing House, a state-owned enterprise. In these and in the others on view, famous landmarks of the Bund and Nanjing Road appeared often as sites of new revolutions and campaigns against all that the city had once symbolized.

Nanjing Road, 1947. Ni Yide. Oil on canvas

The last area of Hambrecht Gallery is dedicated to Shen Fan’s 2007 installation Landscape-Commemorating Huang Binhong-Scroll, an homage to one of China’s great artists of the twentieth century. This installation piece with computer-operated neon lights and music introduces the contemporary section “Shanghai Today.” Like most of the works in this section, it was created in the past few years, while a number of works in this section were actually created for the exhibition.

Landscape—Commemorating Huang Binhong—Scroll, 2007. Shen Fan.
Installation with lights and sound.

After exiting Hambrecht Gallery, the exhibition continues in Lee Gallery, which features contemporary photographs, textiles, ink paintings and calligraphy on paper, acrylic paintings, and oil paintings. For the first time North Court will be given over to art, where two large new works by the leading Shanghai installation artists Zhang Jianjun (b. 1955) and Liu Jianhua (b. 1962) will be on view.

ZHANG JIANJUN. Photo, Seán Martinfield

Zhang Jianjun’s work Vestiges of a Process: Shanghai Garden is situated closest to Lee Gallery on the east side of North Court. It is an installation composed of two silicone rubber Taihu rocks, manufactured from molds of real Taihu rocks which in traditional garden culture are prized for providing to city dwellers a symbolic access to nature. The rocks are accompanied by a silicone rubber vase. Together they are arrayed atop a pavement of gray antique bricks, salvaged from the demolition of Shanghai houses constructed between 1923 and 1926. Visitors can walk around the rocks, reflecting on time and process.

Photo, Seán Martinfield

Photo, Seán Martinfield

Liu Jianhua’s Can You Tell Me? occupies the west end of North Court in the Vinson Nook. The installation is a series of stainless steel books suspended from a vertical wall. Each book presents two questions about Shanghai’s future, one on each page, that are translated into five languages, Chinese, English, French, German, and Japanese. Always changing, propelled by its role as an economic powerhouse, the city suggests endless possibilities, some of which Liu asks visitors to contemplate.

The last section of “Shanghai Today” is presented in what is normally used as the Education Resource Room. (The Resource Room is temporarily moved to Tateuchi Gallery, in the southwest corner of the second floor.) This space features contemporary video art, one of the mediums in which Shanghai artists are taking a worldwide lead. Three of the five videos are by Yang Fudong (b. 1971): City Light (2000); Liu Lan (2003); and Honey (2003). A celebrated photographer, videographer, and film maker, Yang frequently explores the feelings of longing and displacement. His works often focus on the lives of young urbanites who despite possessing admirable qualities such as education or beauty, may not be well-adjusted to the environment in which they live.

Mawangdui 2009. Liu Dahong. Embroidered silk. H. 240.0 x W. 100.0 cm each, two pieces.
Right photo is a detail from the reverse side.

Detail, Mawangdui 2009. Photo, Seán Martinfield

Click here to purchase the sumptuous companion book to the exhibition: SHANGHAI: Art of the City


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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:


Telephone: 415-846-2475




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