IT WAS IN the early 20th century that Pablo Picasso was first embraced in China. His blue period (1901-1904)—characterised by solemn paintings of gaunt figures and beggars—earned him a reputation for being sensitive to the lower classes and led Chen Shiwen, a Chinese art scholar, to proclaim him the “Lenin of Painting”. Picasso’s profile in the country was further boosted by his decision to join the French Communist Party in 1944 (though he was hardly an active member): his left-leaning politics and preoccupation with peace seemed to put him in service to the proletariat.
But by the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Picasso had been rebranded as decadent, feudal and a “poisonous weed” by People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. His work, like that of so many other intellectuals and artists, was simply ignored until Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening-up”, a period which began in the late 1970s. In 1983 the National Art Museum of China presented “Original Works from Picasso”.
“The evolution of Picasso’s image in China is a mirror [of] the nation itself,” writes Wu Xueshan, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts, in a preface to “Birth of a Genius”, an exhibition of the artist’s work recently hosted at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. Spanning three decades of Picasso’s career, it was the largest exhibition dedicated to the Spanish modernist to have been held in China.
UCCA, a cornerstone of the 798 arts district, usually attracts approximately 900,000 visitors a year; 350,000 saw this show alone. It drew an assorted crowd of government officials, intellectuals, artists, families, students and curious residents keen to escape the summer heat of their flats. It was covered generously by all major Chinese state-media outlets and even became something of a destination for pop stars and celebrities—a few of whom were initially recruited to promote the exhibition—to post about online.
Given the current nationalistic mood in China, such a splashy reception for a foreign artist may seem odd. But UCCA, as an independent not-for-profit gallery established by Guy Ullens, a Belgian art collector, and now run by Jerry Mao, an entrepreneur, and Derek Sulger, his business partner, is able to stage ambitious shows that the Chinese government would not be interested in funding (“Birth of a Genius” was made possible by sponsorship from Sotheby’s and Morgan Stanley, among others). On their own initiative, private institutions such as UCCA, the M Woods museum in Beijing and the Yuz Museum in Shanghai have been able to mount bold exhibitions that they believe are of interest to the public; such shows attract the notice of international art enthusiasts as well as locals. Philip Tinari, chief executive officer of UCCA, who has worked in China’s art industry since 2002, argues that the state tacitly approves of this arrangement.
Indeed, “Birth of a Genius” suffered little state interference. Mr Tinari says that the procedure for getting approval from the Ministry of Culture has become more formal and standardised, as organisers submit images and descriptions of the works to be included in advance. Digitisation has made the job of censors more efficient, too, as they are able to process requests more quickly and at a greater volume. Artworks depicting violence, drugs or political upheaval may be banned, but Mr Tinari stresses that censorship is felt primarily in the state’s own cultural apparatus—at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, for example, or the artists’ guilds, which are required to be more sensitive to the political climate.
Most significant is the fact that independent institutions are bearing some of the cultural-diplomacy load. For “Birth of a Genius”, the Musée National Picasso in Paris loaned 103 works of art, valued at nearly $1bn. France has a long history of lending artworks to China, but this was the largest and most prized offering to date. Xi Jinping and Emmanuel Macron discussed plans for the exhibition during the French president’s visit to China in January 2019 as well as the possibility of future Chinese loans to France, designating 2021 the year of “Sino-French cultural tourism”. At a time when China’s relations with the West can be tense, art is encouraging dialogue and cooperation.