Display of 52 masterpieces 1st of its kind after COVID
UK National Gallery in Shanghai
Published: Jan 18, 2023 12:12 AM
Visitors look at a painting from UK's National Gallery at the Shanghai Museum. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

Visitors look at a painting from UK's National Gallery at the Shanghai Museum. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

In the soft, warm light, a senior citizen gazes intently at Vincent van Gogh's Long Grass with Butterflies hanging on the wall. Stepping away, a young woman carefully takes photos of the faces of the characters in Raphael's The Garvagh Madonna. Accompanied by melodious string music played at the exhibition hall, visitors experience a rousing journey through European fine art history.

These precious paintings, among others, are on display at Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, an exhibition jointly held by the Shanghai Museum and the National Gallery of the UK. 

After two years of preparation, 52 paintings from the National Gallery collection are now on display at the Shanghai Museum. The exhibition is being hailed as the first high-level Western art exhibition in China since the country optimized its COVID-19 response measures in December 2022. 

Big names, great works

The 52 paintings, which opened Tuesday and ends May 7, are from 50 well-known European art masters such as Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Constable, Monet and Van Gogh.

Shown across eight sections, from "Btticelli and Painting in 15th-Century Italy" to "Painting in Britain," these great artworks present the development of post-Impressionism from the Renaissance to the 19th century. 

"It can be said to be a condensed brief history of European art," says the Shanghai Museum.

Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery, talked about the exhibition highlights during a video speech he delivered at a preview on Monday night, such as Sandro Botticelli's Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius, Rembrandt's Boy Bitten by a Lizard and Claude Monet's Irises

"[They are] some of our most beautiful and precious works," Finaldi said.

At the Monday preview, visitor Chen Ping stood in front of Rembrandt's Self Portrait at the Age of 63 for a long time. 

"It's very precious and not something you can see every day," he told the Global Times at the exhibition.

Chen, a retired art history teacher from the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, spoke highly of the exhibition, saying the drawings on display are invaluable. 

"Many of them are in art history textbooks; I'm so glad that I can see them in person in Shanghai," Chen said.

The artworks at the exhibition are insured for a total of 6 billion yuan ($886.2 million), the Global Times learned.

To systematically present four centuries of European painting to visitors, organizers carefully selected the most classic master works of different periods, Shanghai Museum director Chu Xiaobo said. 

"We communicated with the National Gallery online during the entire selection and arrangement phase, which was not easy during the pandemic," Chu told the Global Times.

Envoy of culture

As the first station on the National Gallery's Asia tour, which is expected to end in early 2024, the exhibition in Shanghai, a city once battered by COVID-19, is a testament to the joint efforts of the Chinese and British organizers, who worked hard to maintain cooperation during the pandemic, observers said.

The National Gallery did not come to China in person along with the artworks this time. That shows a huge degree of trust in the relationship between the gallery and the Shanghai Museum, said Chris Wood, the British consul general in Shanghai.

Wood said he believes that people will see many more exchanges in culture and other fields between the UK and China in the future. 

"Various institutions have stayed connected through these difficult times. As we see today, it is possible to make something happen," Wood told the Global Times at the Monday preview. 

"The exhibition [successfully opened] thanks to the great efforts of both sides, and we look forward to more exchanges in the coming months," he added.

Chinese museums have been working hard on maintaining communications in culture, art and archaeology with the world during the pandemic. The exhibition is being held as part of the Shanghai Museum's exhibition series "A Dialogue with the World" and follows the first exhibition titled West Encounters East: A Culture Conversation between Chinese and European Ceramics held in 2021.

"The pandemic never stopped us from communicating with the world," Chu said. 

"We overcame various difficulties and continue to be an envoy of cultural exchanges."