IN 1989, JEAN-HUBERT MARTIN rocked the foundations of the Parisian art world with his land­mark exhibition, “Magiciens de la Terre”, which provoked heated debate about the alleged divide between Western and non-West­ern art. Focusing on work from Asia and Africa at a time when an “international exhibi­tion” meant featuring artists from New York, Martin illustrated to his peers how diverse contempor­ary art could be and why limiting their world to a European or American perspective was both narrow-minded and self-referential.

A significant section of the exhibition was dedicated to Chinese contemporary art and one of its most unexpected and long-lasting consequences was the defection of a number of the Chinese artists who had flown to Paris for the launch. Taking place around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, “Magiciens de la Terre” gave these painters and sculptors their first and potentially only opportunity to live in a country that prided itself on artistic freedom – and, nearly 30 years later, many of them are still based in the French capital.

The defections made headlines around the world but they were not unprecedented. Quite the contrary, in fact, as they allowed Paris to re-establish itself as a haven for Chinese artists, a label it had worn comfortably for 60 years.

Exhibition illuminates Chinese artists who lived in Paris in 20th century

Paris was home to the most dynamic art scene in the world for the first half of the 20th century and that coveted position was due, in no small part, to an influx of immigrant artists, who brought with them a diverse range of styles. But while men such as Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Modigliani and Dali have been celebrated for their contribution to the avant-garde art wave, less attention has been paid to the Chinese artists who made Paris their home in the inter- and post-war years. Bringing with them traditions dating back millennia and an aesthetic entirely at odds with the Western art of the time, the resulting culture clash would have a profound effect on both the artists themselves and French concepts of culture.

Sanyu and Lin Fengmian, while not nearly as famous as their Spanish counterparts, were established members of the Parisian art scene by 1930. Sichuan-born Sanyu, who was trained in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, became a fixture of Montparnasse café society and was deeply influenced by the city’s fabled salons.

“Sanyu integrated into the Parisian Bohemian life until his death in France, in 1966,” says Clara Rivollet, an Asian-art specialist at Christie’s in Paris. “He was the first Chinese painter to stay permanently in Paris and therefore holds a unique position in Chinese modern-art history, as he stands at the threshold of Europe and China.

“Paris brought freedom to Sanyu, who escaped a rather strict academism. He particularly chose to follow the free-spirited teachings of the Grande Chaumière academy rather than the Beaux-Arts, due in part to its nude-posing sessions, which were non-existent in China and would later become central to his oeuvre.

“Paris attracted Chinese artists at the time like it attracted artists from all over the world. Sanyu was the neighbour and friend of artists such as Foujita, Modigliani, Fernand Léger and so many more.”

They were from a generation who wanted more for their country. They wanted to learn from the West
Catherine Kwai

In November, one of his more famous works, Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase (1950s), sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong for HK$103.58 million, a world record for a still life by the artist. The artwork is a good example of Sanyu’s ability to blend Parisian avant-garde traditions with the core concepts of Chinese painting.

“The table’s angle reminds me of Cézanne’s perspective,” says Rivollet, “while the negative colours of the white branches on a dark background recall the flower radiographs by Man Ray, Sanyu’s contemporary and neighbour. But if you look at the sure sinuous black lines, they are totally calli­graphic. In that sense his work is truly universal.”

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As these artists became established in the interwar years, Paris’ curators began to appreciate their work. In 1933, the city became the first European capital to exhibit a series of contemporary Chinese paintings, which were displayed at the Musée du Jeu de Paume. More than 80 artists took part and poet Paul Valéry wrote a forward for the catalogue in which he described Chinese artists as being influenced by two pasts, “theirs and ours” – a phrase that would be used more than once in the decades that followed.

Fascinated by Matisse, Chagall and the Fauvist traditions, Lin Fengmian spent many years living in Paris after the first world war and decided that if Chinese art was to have a place on the world stage, Chinese art students would need to learn about European art movements as well as their own.

In 1926, the Guangdong-born artist returned to China and a few years later became president of the National College of Art, in Hangzhou, which would evolve into the prestigious China Academy of Art.

One of Lin’s most promising students was Zao Wou-Ki, the son of an affluent family who was inspired by his professor to move to Paris. Zao would become the most important Chinese contemporary artist of the 20th century.

Zao Wou-ki: Chinese painter who became a Western master

In November 2002, he was elected to l’Academie des Beaux Arts (The Academy of Fine Arts), a rare honour for someone born outside of France. Founded in 1816 to preserve and celebrate French arts and culture, the academy is one of five that make up the highly prestigious Institut de France, a foundation dating back to 1795 that protects French language and heritage. But when Zao and his wife, Lalan, moved to the French capital, in 1948, they were simply a young couple looking for an adventure.

“I don’t think they planned on moving to Paris forever,” says Catherine Kwai, curator of “Singing in Colours and Dancing in Ink”, a retrospective of Lalan’s work being held at the Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery, in Central, until January 24. “They were from a generation who wanted more for their country. They wanted to learn from the West and find a way to incorporate Chinese philosophy and culture into the modernisation they believed was essential for China’s future. And Paris to them was the heart of all Western culture.

“Also, Wou-Ki was bored, he thought young people should travel and see the world and bring their learnings home. But they moved in 1948, a precipitous time, just before the Communists took over, and this led them to stay in France permanently.”

Artist Zao Wou-ki’s works bridged east and west

Unlike the many Chinese artists who struggled to integrate into the city, Zao and Lalan had enough money to live near the Giacometti Studio, in the fashionable 14th arrondissement, and had learned to speak French prior to the move, so were quickly accepted into Paris’ haute salons and artistic circles.

This helped Zao, and to a lesser extent his wife, achieve great success. Like Sanyu before them, they found a way to incorporate European art movements into their Chinese education with extraordinary effect. “Everyone is bound by tradition – I, by two,” Zao famously said, when talking of his work.

“Zao Wou-Ki’s case is unusual in that he had his first recognition in France, not China,” says Rivollet. “He had a retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1981 and was supported by the established Galerie de France, in Paris. He was known as an Ecole de Paris artist and understood as such, which means that Asian collectors see his work through different eyes. They see the literati painter wandering through nature and rendering an imaginary landscape, whereas a European amateur sees only the formal development of abstraction.

Painter Zao Wou-ki’s life comes full circle

“So to truly understand Zao, one needs to understand Chinese classical painting as well as Western art. He not only paints abstraction but transposes Chinese classical painting into Western modernity and therefore writes a whole new chapter in Chinese art history. His painting is much more ambitious than what the European can see. With the emer­gence of the Asian art market, Zao had a second, much larger recognition in the international art scene.”

A second wave of immigration occurred in the 1980s and this influx also blended the artistic styles of China and France.

Yan Peiming arrived in France in 1980 and started his working life in Europe as a dish-washer. Aided by French government grants, he soon became success­ful, with a solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, in 1995, that showcased his epic black, white and red portraits of Mao Zedong. Yan is famous for using the rapid, thick brush­strokes traditionally associated with Western forms of abstract expressionism but, uniquely, to depict Chinese propaganda.

If you don’t care about politics, you can now have a lot of artistic freedom in China, but you can’t have a political voice
Wang Keping

“It is difficult to know what my work would be like had I stayed, but it would be different for sure,” says the Shanghai-born painter, by phone from his studio in France. “Without a doubt, for the artists who have stayed, their environments and lifestyles are different and, therefore, their work is as well. I, myself, am a nomadic artist, without borders.”

He may be nomadic in his art, but in life Yan has fully integrated into French culture. He describes himself as “very French”, and the government agrees – in 2007, he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and, later that year, accom­panied the then president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, on a tour of China.

“France has been a huge source of inspiration for me and for other Chinese artists, and it has allowed me to understand the country of my birth better,” says Yan. “There are many contrasts between the two countries. With the Chinese, the main focus of discussion is business but, here in France, it is the artwork itself. Although I would say that the most radical change from my move was leaving the official Chinese art of propaganda for the art of the individual.”

One of China’s most celebrated contemporary sculptors, Wang Keping exploded onto the art scene in China in the late ’70s, alongside Ai Weiwei, but has spent the past three decades living in Paris. He has also spoken at length about how exile has helped him understand China and allowed him to be more vocal about his personal political beliefs.

My life: Chinese artist Yan Peiming

“If you don’t care about politics, you can now have a lot of artistic freedom in China, but you can’t have a political voice, and I believe a real artist wants to incorporate this voice in his work. Which means you are either against the government or you support it,” says the Beijing-born wood sculptor. “That is why I have always said that if I had stayed, I would either be very rich, or in prison.”

As a founding member of Beijing contemporary art group The Stars, which championed artistic freedom, Wang fought hard for creative rights before he emigrated. Does he feel guilty about leaving?

He shakes his head. “I needed to be free,” he says. “The Cultural Revolution had erased Chinese culture to the extent that if you were an artist, you were considered to be against the government and making disorder – although moving to Paris was complicated in its own way. As a Chinese artist you often have only two options: keep up with Chinese traditions and art forms, because Westerners will buy them, or become a European artist. I decided not to take either of those paths and the result is that curators do not always include me in Chinese exhibitions, because my work doesn’t have the traditional element they are hoping for.”

Times are changing, however, and Wang and Yan, as well as Paris-based contemporaries such as Huang Yong Ping and Li Shuang, have noticed a steep increase in demand for their work since the emergence of the Asian art market. Meanwhile, after decades of exposure to Chinese artists, the French public is becoming increasingly fascinated by Asian art, as illustrated by the numerous exhibitions dedi­cated to the genre that have been held across Paris over the past two years.

Contemporary Chinese art challenging clichés and exploring new realities with Paris show

“Right now, the most important collectors of Chinese art outside of Asia are in Europe, not the United States, and mainly in Switzerland, France and Belgium,” says Alexandre Errera, the French-born, Hong Kong-based director of The New Circle and Artshare. “In Francophile countries, there are strong links to Chinese art and that’s understandable, given our history. The Chinese have made their mark on Paris and now French artists such as Fabienne Verdier are producing work that is highly influenced by their artistic traditions while French curators and photographers are moving to Shanghai and Hong Kong and opening galleries [such as the Edouard Malingue Gallery] and contributing to events such as Le French May.”

Paris, something of a waning power in the art world in relation to New York and London, is understandably keen to establish itself as a hub for contemporary Asian art in Europe. And to cement this reputation, in 2015, the first annual Western art fair dedicated to work from Asia was launched in the city. Housed in a Haussmannian building on Avenue Hoche, Asia Now runs for four days in October alongside FIAC, the city’s biggest art fair, and showcases work from 30 of the continent’s most respected galleries.

“My contemporaries in Paris are desperate to buy Chinese art and needed a platform to do that from,” says Alexandra Fain, the founder and director of Asia Now. “While travelling around Asia to find galleries and artists for the fair, I noticed a huge love for Paris, even from artists who had never been. People such as Wou-Ki are revered in China and so I am not surprised young artists want to follow him.”

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While Paris’ future as a hub for Asian art is question­able, given the global role that Hong Kong already plays in buying and selling art from the region, a continued cultural exchange between the two countries can only be seen in a positive light. And a number of benefactors are helping Chinese artists move to Paris, albeit temporarily and in a less dramatic fashion than those of the past.

In 2010, Hong Kong-born Adrian Cheng Chi-kong estab­lished the K11 Foundation, to support young artists and give them the opportunity to study overseas. Cheng has since formed partnerships with two Parisian institutions, the Palais de Tokyo (the head curator of which was, until 2015, Hong Kong-born Jo-ey Tang) and the Pompidou Centre. Together they have brought a number of talented young artists to the French capital, to follow in the footsteps of those creative giants who straddled continents and cultures and used the dichotomy to create some of the most important art of the 20th century.

Hopefully, these young men and women will continue the tradition of challenging our perceptions and breaking down the alleged divide between Western and Chinese contem­porary art.