Books: The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee


The Art of Rivalry by art critic Sebastian Smee is a biography with a difference. Looking at four pairs of artists from the modern era, it explores how they influenced one other. There is a single essay devoted to each pair, presented in alphabetical rather than chronological order: Freud and Bacon; Manet and Degas; Matisse and Picasso; and Pollock and de Kooning.

I liked this concept because it seemed to offer a new take on these giants of the art world. The decision to limit your focus to the impact of one particular friendship (or rivalry) allows you to go deep without dragging on too long. For instance, Degas outlived Manet by over 30 years, but those decades fall outside the scope of the narrative. The friendship between Manet and Degas was most active between 1867 and 1869, allowing you to narrow the scope even further, and investigate those years most closely.

Despite this structure, I didn’t find the writing as focused as I expected. The essay on Manet and Degas felt too drawn out, with such a host of supporting actors that the central thread was lost. The essay on Pollock and de Kooning concentrated heavily on the early parts of their lives, the years when they hadn’t even met.

I preferred the essays on the Freud-Bacon and Matisse-Picasso relationships. In each case, the narrative felt more streamlined and the story more compelling. The outsize personality of Bacon dominates the former. In the latter, it is the classic tale of artists competing for patronage that draws you in: Matisse and Picasso were both favoured by the wealthy Stein households (Gertrude and Leo on the one hand, and Sarah and Michael on the other), but their standing waxed and waned.

Given the initial premise, I wasn’t too surprised that Smee dwells less on the art and more on the social lives of the artists – many of whom were lecherous and dissolute. There is some careful analysis of individual pictures, which I enjoyed, but it is not the main driver here, and the colour plates are ungenerous. The reader is expected to know the works or to google them.

I thought Smee could have done more to highlight the resonances between the four stories, perhaps by adding a conclusion as well as an introduction. I found myself noting the same dynamics cropping up again and again, but in the main you are left to make the connections for yourself.

The Art of Rivalry
Sebastian Smee, 2016.
Random House, 390 pages, $28.00 (hardcover).

San Diego visit, part 1: Brush and Ink


I visited San Diego over the summer and saw two exhibitions of Asian art in the Balboa Park complex. First up was Brush and Ink at the San Diego Museum of Art, an inspiring selection of Chinese paintings chosen by contemporary artist Pan Gongkai (b. 1947), and hung with his own work.

Pan Gongkai is himself a practitioner of traditional ink painting.  The works he has chosen here represent different periods and genres, yet he conveys a strong sense of the tradition that unifies them.

Early works include a small painting on silk from the 15th century, Scholar Under a Pine, and two fan paintings by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Landscape with Lake and Three Boats and Landscape with Lake, Bridge, and Fisherman (the second on gold paper).

The art theorist Dong Qichang (1555-1636) is represented with a fan painting too: Orchids, Fungus, and Rock. There is a breath-taking snow scene by Huang Shen (1687-1773), Traveling in the Snow Mountains. There are several 20th century works, including Shrimp by Qi Baishi (1863-1957) – I do enjoy pictures of crustaceans.

For me, this was an interesting complement to the 2015 show Exquisite Nature at the Asian Art Museum, another display of Chinese paintings from across the centuries.  However, the San Diego exhibit is twice the size (40 works as opposed to 20) and the space afforded by these huge galleries is immensely helpful, giving the works more room to breathe and enhancing the journey from artistic past to present.

Brush and Ink: Chinese Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
29 April to 5 September 2016 (now closed)

Above: Scholar under a Pine, 15th century. Ink and colour on silk. 25.4 x 25.72cm. The San Diego Museum of Art. Image at

Ten days left to see Chinese treasures from Taiwan

The jewel of the 2016 schedule at the Asian Art Museum has been the show Emperors’ Treasures, which presents choice artworks on loan from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This show is now in its last ten days and is absolutely worth a visit.

The exhibition includes Chinese art from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, a period of about 800 years in total. There are paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades and other types of art as well, including the celebrated “meat-shaped stone” – a piece of jasper made over to look exactly like a piece of fatty pork.

I was especially taken with the ceramics: a black tea bowl with a tree leaf design embedded in the glaze (Southern Song); a wine cup and saucer in the rarest cobalt blue (Yuan); a famous blue-and-white globe vase with a flying dragon design (Ming, reign of Emperor Yongle).

The paintings are also exceptional, though I found the presentation less compelling. The exhibition followed a clear chronological format, which relies on separating the material out into discrete parcels. This structured approach works well for ceramics, less so for paintings. You lose that sense of the gradual evolution of the medium, of the constant, layered references back to earlier painters. Still, a show that is not to be missed.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
17 June to 18 September 2016

Above: bowl with tree leaf design. Jizhou kiln, Jiangxi province. Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). High-fired ceramic with black glaze. Height 5.1cm; diameter at mouth 14.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at

Below: cup and saucer with gilt decorations. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Porcelain with cobalt blue glaze and gilt decoration. Cup height 3.4cm, diameter at mouth 8.5cm; saucer diameter 15.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Below: vase with a flying dragon amid flowers. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ming dynasty (1368-1644), reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-24). Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. Height 42.2cm, diameter at base 16.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Below: meat-shaped stone. Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Jasper, gold stand. Height 5.73cm; length 5.3cm; width 6.6cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Hidden Gold at the Asian Art Museum

han sang-soo korean bridal robe (1)
Hidden Gold is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Asian Art Museum. It brings together a diverse selection of pieces from the museum’s collections, each golden in some respect, but covering a wide range, both geographically and chronologically. You will find Japanese screens, Chinese fan paintings, Buddhist artefacts from Cambodia and Mongolia, and much more besides.

I enjoyed the presentation very much and found this a refreshing show to visit – not too large, but still plenty to take in. Unlike the big 2012 exhibit Bronze at the Royal Academy in London, this dwells less on the technical aspects of working with the metal, and more on its symbolic value.

This could explain the pleasing bias towards textiles, where gold is used to glorify the wearer. There are two contrasting but highly decorative robes from China: a Daoist ceremonial robe, with a design that reflects the structure of the cosmos in Daoist thought, and a Qing dynasty Emperor’s dragon robe, emblazoned with nine dragons. There is a contemporary bridal robe from Korea, produced in 2002 by renowned artisan Han Sang-soo (b. 1934), with motifs to emphasize creativity and fruitfulness, including a stylized rainbow mountain and peaches.

Definitely recommended.

Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
4 March to 8 May 2016

Above: Han Sang-soo, bridal robe, 2002. Silk embroidered with silk and gold thread. Asian Art Museum. Photo: SF.

Architecture of Life at BAMPFA

bampfa hall

We made a family visit recently to BAMPFA, the newly reopened arts centre for the University of California, Berkeley. The acronym stands for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and while the focus is on both art and film, we went to see the inaugural exhibition, entitled Architecture of Life.

I found this a hugely energising show to explore, and I would love to go back. It takes the twin themes of architecture in the human world and architecture in the natural world, and interprets them in an open and unstructured way. It brings together works from different cultures and different periods, so that you abandon all thoughts of context and give yourself up to the visual ride, just focusing on the objects in front of you. Several exhibits are drawn from scientific projects, increasing the sense of an inter-disciplinary, trans-boundary adventure.

Given how the format emboldens you to look at things together and make unexpected connections, it seems counter-intuitive to zero in on objects with an Asian link, which is my usual practice here. However, those I find myself highlighting are as mixed a selection as any I might have chosen, so in that sense it is representative.

“Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata is a series of five models by Japanese architects, seeking to create a new structure in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The final version was constructed by volunteers, using cedar logs damaged by the sea.

Photographer Yuji Obata (b.1962) pays homage to an early photographer of snowflakes, Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), through his photographs of snowflakes in freefall. He uses a technique perfected over years in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido.

Noriko Ambe (b.1967) creates sculptures made from hundreds of small sheets of flat, synthetic paper, individually hand cut then stacked to create abstract forms in organic shapes.

Hyun-Sook Song (b.1952) is a painter whose work I first encountered on my visit to ART14 London. I was a little blown away to find three big canvases, more sombre though than those I saw previously. 21 Brushstrokes shows the shrouded body of the artist’s mother prior to burial, resting alone on a bier, and  has a particular bleakness.

These are just a few examples, however. The whole experience is diverse, stimulating and highly recommended.

Architecture of Life
BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA
31 January to 29 May 2016

Above: Atrium at BAMPFA. Photo: SF.

Below: Toyo Ito (b.1941) and others, “Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata, 2012. 1:20 scale model; wood, styrene board, styrol, plastic. Photo: SF.

toyo ito home for all scale model

Below: Noriko Ambe, A piece of Flat Globe, Vol 12 and Vol 22, 2010-12. Cut YUPO. Photos: SF.

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe A

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe B

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 21 Brushstrokes, 2007. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 21 brushstrokes

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 4 Brushstrokes over Figure, 2012. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 4 brushstrokes over figure

Bonnard at the Legion of Honor

Following on from my last post on Japanese porcelains, another highlight at the Legion of Honor museum is their current temporary exhibition on Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). This runs to several galleries, featuring over 70 works, and covering all the themes you would hope to find in a Bonnard show, from bathing nudes to still lifes to domestic interiors. There are also tiny prints of his photographic work, which I had not seen before.

This is not Asian art, of course, but I wanted to include it here because several works show the influence of Japanese prints, an aspect of the Nabis movement of the 1890s. This is especially apparent in the scenes showing women in decorative costumes with bold patterning.

For instance, the group of four panels called Women in the Garden features a series of single women in eye-catching dresses, possibly intended to represent the four seasons, a favourite theme in Japanese art. The atmospheric garden scene Twilight likewise offers a celebration of colour and pattern on the women’s dresses. I think some of the audience will be primed to make these links after visiting the show Looking East at the Asian Art Museum, discussed in this previous post.

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia
Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
6 February to 15 May 2016

Below: Pierre Bonnard, Woman in Dress with White Dots, from Women in the Garden. 1891. Distemper on paper mounted on canvas. Height 160.3cm; width 48cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at

bonnard women in the garden woman in dress with white dots

Below: Pierre Bonnard, Woman in Checkered Dress, from Women in the Garden. 1891. Distemper on paper mounted on canvas. Height 160.5cm; width 48cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at

bonnard women in the garden woman in checkered dress

Below: Bonnard, Twilight: The Croquet Game, 1892. Oil on canvas. Height 130.5cm; length 162.2cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at

bonnard twilight the croquet game

Looking East at the Asian Art Museum

monet the water lily pond
I visited Looking East a couple of months ago, soon after it opened. It is both a celebration of japonisme in all its guises, and an opportunity to see some real treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Such was the general richness and variety, I found myself struggling to marshal my thoughts, and decided to try for a return visit.

I made it back last weekend, but with a small person in tow, so we confined ourselves to a close study of one picture, which is featured on all the publicity material – The Water Lily Pond by Monet. We looked at the Japanese bridge, the willow tree, the reflections on the water, the effects of light and dark, and so on. It was very targeted viewing, but enjoyable. I confess I wasn’t thinking too hard about what Japanese art contributed to Monet’s aesthetic.

However, I did start to think harder about the premise of the exhibition. The secondary title of the show is “How Japan inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western artists”. The layout of the exhibition seeks to achieve exactly this aim, grouping together pictures by Japanese and Western artists that look similar and treat similar themes, be it Japanese bridges or horse racing. In other words, a mechanistic approach to something that is often very nebulous. Reading the labels seemed to ignite my inner rebel. Were those scenes of Parisian life really taking their cue from Japanese ukiyo-e?

I have a copy of the catalogue (thanks to my lovely sister) and I will be reading it, because I think it is easier, and maybe more fruitful, to explore connections of this sort in an essay format. I absolutely recommend the exhibition because it is full of wonderful things, no question. However, I think those wonderful things outshine and transcend the format in which they are presented, so do just go along and enjoy the show.

Looking East: How Japan inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western Artists
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
30 October 2015 to 7 February 2016

Above: Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1900. Oil on canvas. Height 90.2cm; width 92.7cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at

Exquisite Nature at the Asian Art Museum

ni zan river pavilion mountain colors

Exquisite Nature was the first exhibition that I saw following our move to San Francisco – a display of classical Chinese painting, loosely themed around the natural world.  It occupied just one gallery, but the works drew one in for a close and contemplative viewing.

The showpiece was a painting by the master Ni Zan (1301-1374), the hanging scroll River Pavilion, Mountain Colors. The style is sparse and delicate, delineating a landscape that has been simplified and idealised, but still feels real enough that you could step inside it.

The inscription at the top of the scroll is morose, dejected:

“The sound of rain that began in the second month hasn’t let up
Even in the eleventh month.
The boats of the Three Rivers paddle towards Wujiang.
As if drunk, I cannot wake up from spring’s melancholy,
While waves and wild winds beat against my window.”

(translation taken from the exhibition)

A later work by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) offers a sort of counterpoint. His hanging scroll Traveling deep in the mountains contains a dense array of landscape elements that combine to cover the picture surface almost completely. Unlike the Ni Zan work, it embraces a variety of different colour shades. The overall impression is controlled but perhaps softer.

Landscape painting is predominant in the exhibition but other works highlight not just the grandeur of the natural landscape but human activity within it. A pair of paintings by Xie Shichen (1488-after 1567), entitled Elegant gathering at mountain streams, show some of the pursuits of scholars in their mountain retreats: activities such as fishing, drinking or playing a board game. A rural scene by Zhou Chen (active 1472-1535) is entitled Cockfight in a mountain village, although this is thought to illustrate a verse from the Book of Songs, an anthology of ancient Chinese poetry.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking show, and a fine introduction to some highlights of the collection.

Exquisite Nature: 20 Masterpieces of Chinese Painting (14th-18th c.)
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
2 March to 1 November 2015 (now closed)

Above: Ni Zan, River Pavilion, Mountain Colors, 1368. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. Asian Art Museum. Image at

Wastelands: contemporary Chinese art at OVADA

cai yuan untitled
I went exploring this weekend to a warehouse in a less-than-popular part of Oxford, to see a show of contemporary Chinese art. The space is run by OVADA – the Oxfordshire Visual Arts Development Agency – and the show was Wastelands, a group exhibition around themes of consumption and waste.

I enjoyed the colourful contributions from Cai Yuan (b. 1956), who also co-curated the show. His large untitled installation uses cut sections of cardboard boxes painted in bright acrylics, suspended in the air and cascading over the floor in wasteful abandonment.

In his ISMS series, he presents single-colour panels, the paint lightly inscribed with words ending in –ism. I was expecting mainly political vocabulary, but it ranges much wider: for instance, “narcissism, sensualism, materialism, hacktivism, globalism, romanticism …”. The panels are arranged in pairs, so you can’t help but puzzle over them, wondering why A has been paired with B and so on.

Text is also foremost in Labels of Desire by Wessieling, comprised of placards with phoney fashion-industry labeling designed to prod your social conscience, such as “Made in Italy, Sewed by Chinese”. This reminded me a little of the Xu Bing installation Backbone, seen during my visit to LACMA, which used the visual cue of tobacco stencils to focus our attention on the plight of workers in the tobacco industry.

Other works include a baffling hotel-themed installation by Hua Mao First Floor Collective, and a deeply unwholesome film with zombies by Cao Fei (b. 1978). I confess I was left underwhelmed by the Ai Weiwei contribution, a film called Ordos 100 (2012) that documents architects trying (and failing) to build a new city in inner Mongolia. I didn’t have time for a full viewing, but the pace felt slow and the action stilted.

Overall, a show that I really wanted to see but then wasn’t fully convinced by.

OVADA, Oxford
17 July to 9 August 2015 (now closed)

You can view the film Ordos 100 on YouTube.

Above: Cai Yuan, Untitled, 2015. Acrylic on cardboard. Photo: SF.

Below: Cai Yuan, ISMS Series, 2015. Oil on canvas. Photo: SF.
cai yuan isms series
Below: Wessieling,
Labels of Desire, 2015 (left of photo). Laser cut and etched MDF. Photo: SF.
wessieling labels of desire
Below: Wessieling,
Labels of Desire, 2015 (detail). Laser cut and etched MDF. Photo: SF.
wessieling labels of desire detail v2
Below: Sun Yi, Untitled, 2015. Wires and nails on board. Photo: SF.
sun yi untitled

Books: Shanghai Art of the City

pic cover shanghai

This lavish hardback gives a fascinating account of Shanghai’s visual culture in the 20th century, starting with the China Trade paintings of the 1850s (topographical works that showed the premises of important companies) and finishing with video material from the early 2000s. Published to accompany the 2010 exhibition “Shanghai” at the Asian Art Museum, it still works very well as a stand-alone guide.

This was of course a hugely turbulent phase in Shanghai’s history. The Japanese occupied the city during the Sino-Japanese war, first the Chinese sector in 1937, then the foreign concessions in 1941. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, Shanghai artists were not initially too much affected. However, this changed as the authorities relocated art academies away from Shanghai in the early 1950s, and later instigated the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), with devastating effects on artists and artistic practice.

The book presents material from every decade and in a variety of media: traditional ink painting, Western-inspired painting by artists such as Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) and Xu Beihong (1895-1953), propaganda posters, woodcuts and more.

I especially enjoyed the selections from the 1930s, including photographs of 1930s buildings, Shanghai Deco furniture, wool rugs, magazine covers and posters of 1930s beauties. I was also curious to read up on contemporary artists featured in the Saatchi Gallery’s recent “Post Pop” show, such as Zhou Tiehai (b. 1966) and Liu Dahong (b. 1962).

I felt that the essays varied somewhat in quality, and that there was repetition of the historical material – perhaps unavoidable with art that is politically charged. But this volume is bursting with pictures and definitely recommended.

Shanghai Art of the City
Michael Knight & Dany Chan, 2010.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 284 pp.

This book was received as a gift from family!