China on My Mind

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It's been more than three weeks since I returned from Beijing, but thoughts and impressions of it resurface on a daily basis. Friends and colleagues keep asking all sorts of questions about China, as if I had become an expert on the subject after being there for only nine days; but certainly, I did my best to keep my eyes, ears, and mind open as wide as possible. These days, the coverage of the Chinese contemporary art scene has spilled over from the pages of art magazines to such mainstream publications as Vanity Fair (December issue).

Already high auction prices for contemporary Chinese artworks climbed even higher last month, with some paintings going for up to $5 million. It's wrong to assume that this boom is fueled primarily by American and European collectors; there are a number of serious collectors of Chinese art in various Asian countries and even Australia, and one shouldn't overlook the newly well-to-do collectors living in China itself. I was told by one of them that the market for contemporary Chinese art is mostly sustained by local collectors. And in a country where everyone is seemingly obsessed with making money, investing in contemporary art has an obvious appeal.

By the way, for anyone interested in China, I highly recommend today's column in the New York Times by David Brooks, where he observes that "'s China is a society obsessed with talent..." The competition is fierce, and success is earned the old-fashioned way, through vigorous study. I was impressed by first-year architecture students at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. They showed me their assignment: drawings of various mechanical devices. There were no flights of imagination, but a lot of rigorous academic technique. I couldn't help thinking that today, most Western architects don't know how to draw and are completely dependent on the computer.

And while I'm on the subject, there is a small, lovely exhibition at the Getty Center, China on Paper, comprised of several dozen European and Chinese works from the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. My favorites are the large maps of the world made in Europe specifically for Chinese consumers, showing respect for their beliefs by placing China in the center of the world.

Here is another reason to visit the Getty: you don't want to miss the chance to see the exquisite, luminous portrait of a young woman painted by Rembrandt in 1632, at the first burst of his popularity and success. This painting is on loan from a private collection in New York and hasn't been seen for more than thirty years.

And now, if like me, you believe that one cannot be too rich, too thin, or have too many museums in your backyard, go to Anaheim to see a traveling exhibition, Imperial Rome, at Muzeo, a new 'museum with a Z.' It's not a first-rate scholarly exhibition, but kids can learn a thing or two there about life in ancient Rome.

China on Paper
On view at the Getty Center
Through February 10, 2008

Imperial Rome: Discovering the Ancient civilization
On view at Muzeo
Through January 7, 2008

Banner image: Muzeo
Imperial Rome: Discovering the Ancient Civilization