It may surprise some people to know that more than a few of the greatest Chinese painters of the 20th century ended up in France. Paris was the principal city, to be precise. At the time the idea was to study the craft of the art in the West while remaining true to the essence of the Far East. Some of the early Chinese painters went to Paris in the 1920s. As time passed the work of Chinese contemporary painters began to increase to a noticeable degree. These paintings began to be seen more in the museums around France. Some of the best exhibitions came to be displayed in the Musee Cernuschi. This collection at this museum represents one of the most significant collections of Chinese modern painting in Europe.
It is a fact that the end of the imperial period occurred in 1911. The era of “emperors” and their exploitation of the people came to its conclusion. With the rise of the modern way of thinking came enormous effects for the Chinese elite at the beginning of the new century. It seemed natural for these intellectuals to seek learning in the West. Japan, America, and Europe all became significant destinations for Chinese students in the opening decades of the 20th century. It turned out that painters seemed to end up in France. In France Chinese painters could learn the classical teachings in drawing and oil painting of the professors of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, along with the growing influence of certain avant-garde masters. Chinese painters in Paris enjoyed a wide range of educational experiences as a result.
Two painters in particular had a specific role in the history of the cultural relationships between China and France. These painters were Xu Beihong and Lin Fenmian. These two artists from China became involved in exhibition projects. The purpose of these projects was to introduce Chinese contemporary art to the French audience. However, in the beginning such attempts did not seem to attract much attention.
The 1933 exhibition of Chinese painting was curated by Xu Beihong and Anre Dezarrois. It featured the most important artists of the day. It also received the interest of influential critics. Eventually, it led to the acquisition of a selection of twelve paintings by the national museum. What is most important though is the fact that Lin Fengmian and Xu Beihong used the foundation of Western style academies of art. Their work was inspired by the experience of the French educational system. It was no doubt reinforced by the cultural and social image of Paris in Chinese art groups. This influence was very strong among newly trained students of the new academies. In time, this same influence encouraged the departure of young artists like Wu Guanzhong, Zhao Wuji, and Zhu Dequn following World War II.
The legacy of Chinese contemporary paintings is about one hundred years old today. These paintings reflect the beauty of old China by using contemporary foundations and some western techniques. The product is quite attractive and appealing to the eye of the authentic Asian decorator. This special kind of art form should be appreciated and studied very carefully. This art is an important window into the culture, thought, and essence of modern China itself!