A new column by Anna Kunovskaya, the editor-in-chief of the magazine for art collectors "Sammler".
Once upon a time several months ago an art collection worth a considerable sum of money was stolen from a house of the director of a major museum. News agencies did not even have to specify what kind of art collection it was - that of Chinese artists, of course. The words "art" and "China" recently became inseparable in the press. Buying (if you are rich and successful) or being interested in (if you're still working on it) watercolours, drawings and paintings from China is as fashionable as ignoring TV, worrying about the environment or using Twitter.
Why so much demand and fuss? Why Russian painters are sold much cheaper and much less often? Are they worse? Less likable? Not so attractive for Western connoisseurs? And why everyone suddenly loves art from the PRC so much, and not, say, talents from the Middle East or South America?
Even though we talk a lot about Russian genii of installations and paintings - Russian art is on the rise, it follows the trend, we will be on the top soon, and we also have Kabakov and his painting about a bug, and the city of Perm, the San-Sebastian and Helmanland of Russia. True, Russian art is exhibited in the West three times per year - twice in London and once in New York. However, this Russian art is mainly bought by Russians themselves: nearly 70% of all items are bought by Russians and people of Russian descent. As for Chinese art, you can buy it anywhere where there's an art market. Hong Kong. Paris. Even if you're enjoying your pina colada on a beach in Miami, it is quite likely that there's a Chinese art auction not far from you.
It's not only about foreign collections and events. Suppose it's only due to the almighty curators of Christie's and Sotheby's. The Chinese have (they really do) an internal art market. It's not just nominal: seven out of ten most successful, i.e. profitable auction houses are in China. The conclusion is that China has not just artists in demand, but active collectors as well. Can you name one serious auction house in Russia? Not to mention any auction house known outside Russia. Surely art business in China is not home-grown, the largest galleries were created by Americans and Europeans. It is exactly the huge investments into Chinese culture that became the catalizer of active interest to the creations of residents of Beijing and the surroundings.
In 2008, Charles Saatchi, once the owner of the largest advertising agency in the world and an influential gallery owner, has organized an exhibition called Young Chinese Artists with works by young artists from the PRC. Let me remind you that 20 years ago the same person organized Young British Artists and showed Damien Hurst and company to the world. Hurst now is almost the most expensive painter in the world: in 2007, his Superstition exhibition was auctioned for 25 million dollars, which is not the limit for Damien and not his triumph, just a standard situation, successful as it is. Other painters from Young British Artists don't suffer from poverty as well. Of course, Saatchi now has much less influence than 20 years ago, but still.
The Chinese boom has another interesting aspect. If you analyse the annual lists of the most expensive modern art, the list is traditionally topped by sculptures, installations, and only then go paintings. And these paintings are Chinese, while there are less fashionable sculptors and installation makers in China. One of them is Zhang Huang. For example, in the early 90s, this brave man has covered his body with honey and fish oil, and withstood the attack of flies for one hour. Some notable persons in the Russian art scene used to make similar performances at the same time - for example, they crawled naked in the streets on a lead, biting passers-by. However, Zhang Huang (be it the sculpture called "Jackass in feathers" or just photos from another performance) are instantly sold out at the largest international auctions for 400-600 thousand dollars. Do many Sotheby's visitors know the name of the person famous for being naked and on a lead?
The people who have just discovered their new love to Chinese art are likely to name Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun as the artists they know. Anyone who opens a catalogue of paintings for the first time will be surprised how similar they are. One can think that they had the same teacher or studied at the same school. First, there's many faces. A lot of faces. Nothing but faces. The genre of portraits. Sometimes (in Yue Minjun's paintings) these faces are happy. More often (in Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang's paintings) they are tense, stern and worried. The second emotion is "welcome back to the USSR". It reminds so much of Soviet social art, just more neat and tidy. Basically the same, but in a glossy package.
The shadow of Chairman Mao (with anxiety) often appears in these paintings, and "Execution", one of the most famous paintings of Yue Minjun, is, as he confessed, an allusion to the bloody suppression of students' riot on Tiananmen Square. It is the second success factor of Chinese art, after Western money. The public is very interested in the paintings created in a country that was closed yesterday and lived according to a small red book with quotes, and now they got reforms, Deng Xiaoping, installations and the Olympics. Of course, gallery owners like it more when a country changes not gradually, but explosively, just like the USSR.
However, the art market in the early 90s was not at its best, and any private galleries or auctions in Russia were out of the question at that time. The Chinese were more lucky about the time, and they've got no less energy accumulated in a closed country than the Russian artists had after the crash of the USSR. Not to mention that there's more of them in general and this one billion and three hundred million people think it is prestigious and important to get some education, especially in the arts.
A couple of years ago (the China boom was everywhere, but still hasn't reached Russia), an exhibition of Chinese painters was held in Moscow's Central Department Store. The visitors were quite satisfied with the exhibition. Some of them, as I remember, were really delighted. Even though there can hardly be more tasteless and helpless selection of art than the one that was exhibited there. In this sense, Chinese art reminds of heaps of bestsellers in book stores - everyone seems to be buying them, but it is obvious that there are few good books and you have to at least look more carefully.
But they're just in the middle of the book store, and near the entrance, too - you can't walk in without stumbling upon them. Evidently, the general love for Chinese artists will gradually decline - the bestsellers in the book store have to be updated, right?
Maybe the Central Department Store (unless they find a more suitable place, but let it be the CDS) will hold another exhibition of Chinese art. It will be out of fashion by that time, but I hope, there will be more really notable works.
About the author
Anna Kunovskaya is our person in the world of big auction houses - Christie’s, Sotheby's, Bonhams, RM Auction. She is an editor-in-chief of the professional magazine for art collectors "Sammler". In love with art she knows why people collect and what problems they have in cause of it.
Previously: Art Tedium. A Column by Anna Kunovskaya