The Asian Art Museum does Shanghai: opium hulks, Communist propaganda, and neon brush strokes

AAM Shanghai CAT. 66.jpgIt Often Begins with a Smile, 1930s. By Jin Meisheng (19021989). Chromolithograph on paper. Collection of the Shanghai History Museum.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has a great exhibit right now called Shanghai. I was drawn to it because I really enjoy the visual evolution of cities, but also because my mother's side of the family is from Shanghai and many of my ancestral anecdotes originate there. Shanghai has gone through some incredibly eclectic, non-linear changes in the last century and a half, from the early days of Western influence through the Cultural Revolution to post-revolution renewal; this year, it celebrates how far it's come by hosting the World Expo. Dany Chan, the museum's assistant curator for Chinese art, took me on a tour of the galleries last week.

opium husks.jpgView of the Shanghai Bund, approx. 1862-1865 China; Gouache on paper; Peabody Essex Museum, E82723

One of the first things we looked at was this beautiful gouache painting of the Shanghai bund. Many paintings like this one were created by Chinese artists trained by merchants from the West. While nobody knows exactly who these artists are, experts can tell the approximate date of the paintings by the buildings, the types of ships, and the flags. This one, called View of the Shanghai Bund, is believed to be from sometime between 1862 and 1865; indicators include the double-decker opium hulks in the middle and far right, the steamboat in the center, and an office tower that was built around this time.

AAM Shanghai CAT. 33.jpgWandering Eyes Giving Way to Wandering Thoughts, 1890s. By Wu Youru (18391893). Ink on paper. Collection of the Shanghai History Museum.

If you walk through the main gallery in a circle, you see the art work sorted roughly by date. If you make parallel lines, you see it divide by themes — the center divide, for one, is dedicated to a study of women in Shanghai art. Until the late 19th century, women were only drawn on small portrait-sized paper and depicted in private settings. This changed in the 1880 and 1890s; this piece by Wu Youru, called Wandering Eyes Giving Way to Wandering Thoughts, shows a woman peering out her balcony. There's an electric streetlamp outside, which was super high-tech for the era.

AAM Shanghai CAT. 65.jpgA Prosperous City That Never Sleeps, 1930s. By Yuan Xiutang (dates unknown). Chromolithograph on paper. Collection of the Shanghai History Museum.

Shanghai's golden era spanned from around 1912 to 1949. Pictured here is one of many "modern girl" icons that were created during this time — pretty girls in qipaos against a urban cityscape, or in a dancehall, or in a movie poster. The economy was booming, creative freedom of expression flourished, and independent art studios were everywhere.

AAM Shanghai CAT. 84.jpgMao Zedong, 1968. By Yu Yunjie (Chinese, 19171992). Oil on canvas. Collection of the Shanghai Art Museum.

The next section of the exhibit is 1920-1976: Revolution. In contrast to the glorious upper-class economic boom-time drawings, woodcut artists — led by the famous thinker Lu Xun — created socially and politically themed images depicting the lower classes. And then there was, of course, Mao's Cultural Revolution.

AAM Shanghai EX 097.jpgShanghai Number One Department Store, 1955. By Chen Fei (Chinese, dates unknown), published by the Shanghai Picture Publishing House. Chromolithograph on paper. Private collection.

During the Cultural Revolution, all the private art studios were shut down and replaced by the government-owned Shanghai Picture Publishing House, where old artists were reformed and new artists were trained to create propaganda posters and ads. This one, called Shanghai Number One Department Store, shows a busy lower class superstore. It was the easiest and most efficient way to sell people on an idea. Those who publicly opposed this type of art were persecuted and publicly humiliated.

AAM Shanghai CAT. 116.jpgLandscapeCommemorating Huang BinhongScroll, 2007. By Shen Fan (b. 1952). Installation with lights and sound. Courtesy of the artist.

Fast forward to the present day. Freedom of artistic expression took awhile to resurrect ("All of China was taking a breather after the destruction and horror," Chan says of decade after Mao's death), but by the early 90s people in Shanghai and beyond were back to experimenting with art. This installation, created by artist Shen Fan in 2007, is a giant neon wall that pays homage to the 19th century art scholar Huang Binhong. Each neon tube represents a brush stroke; it lights up one tube at a time over the course of an hour to the sound of a qinqin.

You can catch Shanghai at the Asian Art Museum through September 5th.