Over almost twenty years, investment tycoon Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei have built one of the largest art collections the world has ever seen. The first collectors from mainland China to be included in the 2012 ARTnews 200 Top Collectors list, the pair recently commissioned Beijing Zhong Song Design Studio to build a 10,000 sqm granite museum on Luoshan Lu in an attempt to promote art education, facilitate public access to art – and probably to clear out the attic.
Leaving school at fourteen, Liu spent his early years driving taxis and selling bags in Shanghai. He was 27 when he bought his first share in a company near the family bag stall and within a year, 100RMB had turned into 10, 000RMB. Now 50, the father of four is worth an estimated 790 million USD according to Forbes and is reported to have invested a further one billion in Chinese art.
Liu is merely the steam behind the engine however, with wife Wang Wei collecting most of the art and acting as chief curator for the new museum. The Luoshan Lu spot is only the start of the couple’s plans too, with another, larger purpose-built Long Museum set to open near Xuhui Riverside before the end of the year. Reportedly spending 2 billion RMB on art in the past two years alone, the couple are certainly not slowing down.
For now, the Pudong venue is an impressive space. Despite being in the embryonic stages of development in comparison to some of Shanghai’s more well-trodden cultural institutions, the significant investment made in the Long Museum is clear from the moment you walk in through the door. Fantastic disabled access, gleaming bathrooms on each floor, a multi-media exhibition space and lecture hall as well as another gallery, a library and a reading room (all currently closed) in the basement all point to a modern outlook.
So new it’s practically wrapped in cellophane, the museum still smells of paint and plastic and if it’s lacking in anything, it’s atmosphere. Partly due to the location, there seems to be a serious deficiency of visitors. Nevertheless, the Long Museum indisputably makes up for this with its art collection, providing a first class education in the development of Chinese art. Walking around the cavernous rooms housing hundreds of artworks, it’s hard to believe that all of these treasures belong to just two people, and even more impossible to believe that this is only a sliver of their total wares.
The current exhibition, Through All Ages, is very much what it says on the tin. The 1,000-metre exhibition route is spread chronologically over three floors and divided into four sections. To appreciate the development of Chinese art through time, hop straight into a lift and start off on the third floor (confusingly entitled Gallery 5 and Gallery 6). Don’t be put off if you arrive in complete darkness; automatic lighting will flicker on classroom-style as you approach the glass display cabinets. The combination of these electric pools of light, low ceilings and silent atmosphere make you feel as though you are in a provincial museum from the 19th Century rather than Shanghai’s freshest art hub.
There are certainly highlights on this floor, but the endless calligraphy scrolls can get a bit tiresome. Instead, head straight to the ‘Figures Painting’ by Qiu Ying (1498-1552), where a length of silk translates a variety of differently styled ink and colour characters into a 16th century cartoon strip.
Undoubtedly the most impressive item in Gallery 4 is the ‘Sketches of Rare Birds’ by Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) of the Song Dynasty. Not only is this paper hand scroll in remarkably good condition, but the quality of the ink drawings and their advanced subject points to the Emperor as a talented man.
In a separate space off from the main gallery, a zitan ‘Imperial Padauk Throne’ is flanked by two intricately carved wooden screens from the Qing dynasty (bought for 11 million USD at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in 2010). Beautifully executed porcelain vases, rhino horn cups, white jade ornaments and even a seven stringed wooden instrument from the Zhu Huiwen collection also deserve some attention on your way into Gallery 5.
Don’t mistake the paintings in Gallery 2 on the second floor for Chairman Mao wallpaper. Entitled Revolutionary Art Since the Yanan Era, it is very much a case of once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all in this section.
Variety comes in the form of medium rather than subject matter, with mixed media paintings, charcoal drawings and wood engravings on paper. As is to be expected with such propaganda works, the theme sticks to a rigid template: a smiley Mao Zedong surrounded by jovial, healthy, robust factory or field workers. Well-known pieces such as ‘Sentinel of Our Great Motherland’ by Shen Jiawei (1974) and ‘Thinking of History from My Space’ by Chen Yifei (1979) stand out, whereas works from representative artists such as Shen Yaoyi display idealised visions, socialist realism and strong evidence of China’s modern history.
In general, the museum is chronologically ordered, but due to China’s more undulant recent years, paintings from the 20th and 21st centuries are less systematically exhibited. Paintings not considered to be revolutionary art are confusingly split between the second and first floors and having been saturated with Red classics, it’s something of a shock when you happen upon a still life.
The New Art History collection spans 1917-2012 and is the most diverse. Many of the more recent paintings are certainly an acquired taste, with a piece from well-known surrealist painter Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline series standing out. Photorealism and cubist paintings are interjected with more traditional subjects and styles such as ‘Boatman of the Yellow River’ by Shang Yang (1981) as well as assorted fibreglass sculptures.
Particularly notable is ‘The Crow is Beautiful’ (1988) by He Duoling and Sui Jianguo’s response to the ancient Greek ‘Discobolus (Discus Thrower)’ where he shrinks the nude athlete and decks him out in Mao gear.
Elsewhere, The New Style exhibition in the impressive Hall area displays work from fifteen of the top contemporary artists in China (featuring names such as Zhou Chunya and Fang Lijun). Here, enormous canvases are made to look like thumbnails in the well-lit, cavernous core of the building.
Overall, it’s a hugely ambitious museum and Liu and Wang are clearly keen to educate the nation on China’s cultural heritage. In addition to the Xuhui museum later this year, the pair also plan exhibitions of their collection abroad. In an interview with the BBC in 2011, Liu said ‘Art is for all the world; even if it’s abroad, it shows our traditional culture, it shows the spirit of our ancestors to foreigners’. World, watch this space.