A guide giving a talk on Picasso’s “Portrait of Marie-Therese” (1937). For a point of comparison, Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is on her laptop.
A guide giving a talk on Picasso’s “Portrait of Marie-Therese” (1937). For a point of comparison, Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is on her laptop.

By Jane Perlez, The New York Times

BEIJING — The fashion peacocks are parading in Beijing this summer. A young woman with a short crop of neon green hair. Another with scarlet bangs. Others in pointy-toed shoes and perfect makeup. A young man in a pale blue silk shirt, matching bermudas and beige boots.

They are all part of the crowd lining up to see the hot art show of the season — works by the young Picasso at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, a prestigious gallery in the 798 art quarter.

Beijing brags about its humming art scene. Galleries thrive. The art schools possess a certain frisson. Art is widely taught in elementary schools.

But shrouding all this creative fervor is the meddling hand of the government. Censorship is rife in literature, and film. Although few art shows have been closed in the last few years, exhibitions are self-censored, and many artists choose to work abroad to escape the official tastemakers.

For the under-35-year-olds flocking to the Picasso show, some of them artists themselves, the young Spaniard’s wild imagination during the first three decades of his career touched a nerve. They were captivated by Picasso’s drive to experiment before he was even 30. The painter and sculptor didn’t just change the art world; he helped change how a new century saw itself.

But the implicit theme of the show was: Would genius like Picasso’s thrive within the confinements of contemporary China?

The answer isn’t an easy yes or no. Some Chinese artists compete favorably on the world’s freewheeling art stage, which prizes the outré, and the central government welcomes the global recognition its art stars bring. But the authorities can interfere as arbitrary censors at any time, and any work denigrating the party or state, or even hinting at separatism, is strictly forbidden.

“Head of a Woman” (1957) attracts fans. While the show focuses on the first three decades of Picasso’s career, it includes work from later in his career.
“Head of a Woman” (1957) attracts fans. While the show focuses on the first three decades of Picasso’s career, it includes work from later in his career.

For the artists and other creative types visiting the show, Picasso’s works seemed to hint at what’s possible for artists when completely unfettered.

Yan Lei, a sculptor from Beijing, was halfway through the show when he peered into a plexiglass case with one of the artist’s trailblazing works, “Violin.” The blue, brown and white mélange of metal sheets and iron wires was created in 1915, when World War I was raging, and Picasso was 34, about the same age as Mr. Yan.

He was blown away by the originality from so long ago.

“We are doing this today, and think it is very modern,” said Mr. Yan, who keeps a studio on the outskirts of the city. “He was doing this 100 years ago.”

Boliang Shen, a 34-year-old content director of a podcast, was riveted by a sculpture of Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s early girlfriend. In some places, the rough-hewed wood looked as though it had been hacked with a penknife.

“You can feel Picasso,” Mr. Shen said as he circled the work. “He’s looking for himself, his own voice.”

Picasso has long been accepted in China. His onetime membership in the Communist Party helped. When the Communists grasped victory in 1949, an image of a dove by Picasso hung as a symbol of peace at an international conference in Beijing alongside portraits of Stalin and Mao.

He was blacklisted during the Cultural Revolution, like almost all other artists dismissed as a not-to-be-tolerated bourgeois influence. But in the early 1980s, a small show of 30 works marked his comeback, attracting an eager audience hungry for European art after China’s decades in the wilderness.

His celebrity, as important a driver in shaping taste in China as in the West, adds extra allure, as does the astronomical value of his art. The 103 paintings, sculptures and drawings in the show are worth close to $1 billion.

“The Village Dance” (1922) exhibited in the industrial space of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.
“The Village Dance” (1922) exhibited in the industrial space of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

“People are coming in part because he is very famous and very expensive,” said Philip Tinari, the director of the UCCA gallery.

Another big question raised by the show is whether China will learn about projecting soft power from one of the globe’s best at this, France. The Musée National Picasso-Paris lent the 103 works for the exhibition.

When President Xi Jinping of China met the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in the spring, both men publicly blessed the show. But a last-minute glitch having to do with China’s strict customs policies almost scuttled the opening.

“The sticking point wasn’t censorship,” Mr. Tinari said. “It was that the works are so valuable.”

As the deadline for the opening loomed in early June, Chinese customs insisted on a $225 million deposit — 25 percent of the value of the works — as a kind of sales tax, treating the art as if it was to be sold. That amount was to be paid by the gallery before the pieces arrived.

But the art was not for sale. So the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who happened to be in Beijing at the end of April for a gathering of world leaders to discuss China’s global infrastructure program, asked his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to persuade customs to forgo the deposit. And it did.

By June 10, the works had arrived on nine different planes from Europe, and were then installed in the vast industrial space of the UCCA gallery.

Primary school students come in groups with their art teachers, all part of an exercise of what is referred to in China as improving the “good taste” of young children.

One father had picked up his daughter from a tough math exam, and brought her immediately to the show to join her classmates so she could “relax and learn” at the same time.

Taking a picture of Picasso’s “Self-portrait” (1901).
Taking a picture of Picasso’s “Self-portrait” (1901).

David Zhang, 42, an art instructor, assembled his group of restless 9-year-olds before the star piece of the show, a melancholy 1901 “Self-portrait” painted in somber shades of blue, the face a ghostly faint gray. It was painted after the death of a friend.

Mr. Zhang, also an artist, looked the part in a crisp round-collared white shirt, rimless glasses, short cropped hair and an old-fashioned tan leather camera bag slung over his shoulder.

“Just feel it, stand in front of it — this is the original painting,” he said.

Some paid attention, others wriggled. “The color of the skin is not true human skin color,” he said. “How would you call it?”

“They get really excited seeing the real paintings,” Mr. Zhang said, as he pushed through the crowds.

The curators chose a 1906 self-portrait in pale pink-and-white tones with big black eyes as the leitmotif of the exhibition. The painting bears an eerie resemblance to characters in Japan’s animated movies and graphic novels known as manga, one of the most celebrated foreign art forms in China.

The pastel image appears on the show’s catalog cover, advertising posters outside the gallery and shopping bags in the store.

It was a good marketing choice, said Wang Xingwei, a well-known Beijing painter, who has exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and dropped by the show one evening to check out the response.

Like manga, the self-portrait was “cute,” Mr. Wang said, offering a novel interpretation of the young Picasso. “Cute is a popular, important word in China now.”

The portrait was not the most complicated work in the show, he said, but it fit with the moment and appealed to the crowd, which jostled to get a better view.

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