Flourish in time

Weekend Glitz | Lisa Kao 8 Mar 2019

Just looking at the heritage buildings in Shanghai and you know that the Art Deco movement was big in China in the 1920s-30s.

City University of Hong Kong Exhibition Gallery is presenting Art Deco: The France-China Connection until June 30, which will illustrate the unique relationship between France and China through Art Deco.

A unique art period began after World War I in Paris. The rich and flowery style with curves of the previous period Art Nouveau, transformed into linear motifs and straight lines of Art Deco.

"The Art Deco period is not that long, about 20 years," said Isabelle Frank, joint chief curator of the exhibition. "During the 1920s it was more about sculpture, and in the 1930s it had more streamlines on buildings."

It is well known that Art Deco decorations flourished in Europe, but this has rarely been addressed in China. "It was a surprise seeing from the collections how far Art Deco has come to China," said Emmanuel Breon, the other joint chief curator, who was responsible for the French collections.

The spread of Art Deco was aided by the development of communication and transportation. World War I brought a flourish of planes, cars and trans-Atlantic steamers. "The artists all studied together. Paris was the merger for architecture students and painting artists from American and China, so you have all of these architectures around the world," explained Frank.

Architect Liu Ji Piao was one of them. He studied at the French National Art Academy and designed the 1925 Exhibition China section. The Chinese combined the characteristics of Art Deco with Chinese style, and designed the venue for an international exhibition in Hangzhou in 1929.

Art Deco was chosen in China for the famous sculpture of Sun Yat-sen, the first elected president of the Republic of China. After his death, a Chinese delegation with Sun's oldest son chose French sculptor Paul Landowski to use Art Deco style to decorate the sculpture for the mausoleum in Nanjing.

Meanwhile, among the collections are the posters used for advertisements in China during the early republican period.

They look like classic style of posters from the period with girls in cheongsam with products around them.

"Look at the furniture she is surrounded by, her shoes, her dresses everything is really Art Deco," said Frank.

Apart from Chinese collections, French artifacts also play an important role in the exhibition. There is an important Art Deco piece, a model of dancer Lila Nikolska, near the entrance.

"Maurice Picaud simplified the dancer," said Frank. "The energy of the dancer is made in a very simple and very strong line. And the ornamentation itself is very simple and repeats itself."

Furniture designed by emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, whom Frank describes as "king of Art Deco" is also included.

Among more than 300 exhibits from museums, institutions and private collectors, Breon contributed to the French collections, while Frank curated the Chinese part.

"The collections from Shanghai are collected easily. There is an Art Deco website, we get in touch and went to Shanghai and chose some pieces," said Frank. "But I was very frustrated in Hong Kong."

She found Hong Kong collectors collecting Shanghai pieces, but not local furniture or deco arts. "In this exhibition, the only actual Hong Kong pieces are the posters," she said.

The exhibition has interactive devices to show the buildings with Art Deco elements, such as the Sham Shui Po Public Dispensary.

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