Western figures wander into oriental landscape

October 27, 2000

China's biggest exhibition of UK art will allow many Chinese their first glimpse of Henry Moore's works. John Kelleher reports.

It is a willow pattern picture with a twist. Dawn in a Beijing park with mist drifting from a lake. Beneath a drapery of trees, shadowy figures perform the lithe balletics of t'ai chi.

It is a scene repeated across the Chinese capital this autumn morning. But here in Behai Park - which was once the setting for the palace where Kubla Khan greeted Marco Polo - the ritual is performed before an exotic addition to the landscape: a giant bronze sculpture by the British artist Henry Moore.

It is one of 12 placed at key points around the park - the advance guard of the biggest exhibition of British art ever mounted in China. From late October until next spring, 118 of Moore's works will be seen first in Beijing, then Guangzhou and Shanghai.

The event has already excited the intelligentsia of Beijing. Jin Shang Yi, principal of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, says: "This is the most important exhibition of western art in China since the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949."

One of his vice-principals, art historian Wang Hong Jian, has travelled to Britain three times to see Moore's work. When we meet at the crumbling old campus of the college in Beijing, he clutches a photo album containing pictures of his 1982 trip to England, when he visited Moore's old home at Perry Green, near Much Hadham in Hertfordshire. After these visits, he wrote widely about Moore's work for Chinese readers.

He believes Moore's art will strike chords among ordinary people, for he sees echoes of classical Chinese landscape art in Moore's forms. "In China you will see many garden stones called Taihu Lake StonesI stones with many holes in them, and I think we can compare his work to these stones. I think that lots of ordinary Chinese people will accept his work."

Qian Shaowu is former head of sculpture at the academy and one of China's most successful sculptors. His monumental work is scattered across China - vast granite works commemorating heroes from every era of Chinese history. His studies of socialist realist art in the Soviet Union in the 1950s are reflected in his sculpture, which contrasts sharply with his delicate watercolour paintings and calligraphy. Although he is retired from teaching, Qian still works with students at the academy. He is also completing a figure of an imperial general, Guan Jian Pei - a clay model fills his little studio in a Beijing suburb.

Qian says Moore's work has influenced him and that the forthcoming exhibitions will prove powerful for people who have never seen such sculpture. "The most fruitful thing about studying Henry Moore's work will be his spirituality. He has opened the window to other perspectives, other ways of seeing. We have been socialist realists, but he has been very liberating."

The early verdicts of ordinary Chinese happening upon Moore's work in Behai Park were more mixed. The works are sited around a lake crowded with Chinese families navigating pedalos or riding large dragon-headed pleasure cruisers past delicate arching bridges. A white Buddhist dagoba tower dominates the scene rising from an islet hilltop like a giant plunger.

"This does not belong here. It is wrong. It destroys Chinese harmony," ventures an old gentlemen in a weather-beaten workers' cap who leans forward in his Nike trainers to prod his cane at Moore's Large Spindle Piece. "I do not like it," he mutters as he wanders on.

Across the water another bronze provokes puzzlement. "Is this art?" asks a young man. Another ventures: "Is this impressionism?" But one group of students pauses in delight. "Henry Moore! I have seen him in America. I never knew he would be here," says one student. Another adds: "I do not know this artist, but his design is beautiful - like water flowing."

By the park's main entrance a larger sculpture, Three Piece Reclining Figure, is already a novel backdrop for a steady cavalcade of wedding photographers and family snappers. The reclining figure has travelled from the more sedate setting of the meadows of Perry Green, where sheep graze alongside Moore's old studios.

Perry Green is the powerhouse of the Moore industry. From here the Henry Moore Foundation operates as custodian of his reputation and distributor of his posthumous financial largesse. It manages the regular global showings of Moore's work, and it coordinated this enterprise with the British Council.

In the West, Moore's work has become part of the mainstream, long defused of its power to shock. But western art is little known to the Chinese public.

Next year, work by young Chinese artists will be coming to Europe - to Austria, Paris and Germany. No British venue has yet been agreed. Dong Junxin, the head of China's bureau of external cultural relations, says he hopes that Britain, too, will take the show, which the authorities believe will be as important to East-West relations as the Moore exhibitions.

Why was Moore, whose greatest impact was made nearly half a century ago, taken to China now rather than more cutting-edge work, perhaps by a British controversialist such as Damien Hirst or Cornelia Parker?

Maria Day, who is coordinating the exhibition for the British Council from the British embassy in Beijing, says: "I just don't think the new young British artists would work here. They would not be understood at all."

This opinion is echoed by Qian: "I think Chinese people will understand Henry Moore, with his use of natural forms, better than later abstract or conceptual work. With conceptual artists, the ideas that they are expressing, their criticismsI I don't really understand this."

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