Highlife and Lowlife
An exotic paradise of smiles. That's how some Western artists saw China in the 18th Century. Now a new exhibition of prints from this time is on display at Peking University's Sackler Museum. The collection offers a glimpse into European history and its obsession with China.
"In the 18th century, it was thought by Europeans that China was a happy place where everybody was well off, they sang, they danced..."
Donald Stone is a professor of art history at Peking University. He talks about a couple of prints by French artist Jean Pillement. One shows a buddha on a pedestal in a dreamlike garden. In the other a Chinese man with a pointed mustache approaches a European lady.
"So China was, for the Europeans, a kind of fantasy, a dream where everything is not only happy and beautiful, but it allowed the artist - you see these Pillements - to let their imaginations run wild."
The exhibition consists of over 60 prints all made just before the start of the French Revolution in 1789.
"So, if you look carefully at these prints, of course, they're made up of lots and lots of lines and these lines would have been drawn or scratched or engraved by hand on...."
"Absolutely, absolutely. You know, nowadays the reproductions are made by cameras. In those days they had to hire etchers to draw every single line by hand on a piece of copper. It must have been an enormous labor."
The exhibition's titled 'High Life and Low Life'. The name came from a rowdy street scene by English artist William Hogarth called Southwark Fair.
"In this print you have the highlife and lowlife together in one print. You have high theatre and low theatre, high born people and low born people. And in connection with Hogarth you really have the extremes of the English classes, the upper classes and lower classes. So, it was just the title that popped into my head. "
This is part of a long collaboration between Professor Stone and Peking University.
The works on display belong to the professor, but most will stay in China as he's pledged to donate all his prints to the university.
Reported by: Dominic Swire
Edited by: Arthars