This November, while all eyes were on Shanghai as its mainstay art fair ART021 made its post-pandemic comeback, another emerging arts and culture destination in China presented a possible alternative for those seeking different narratives of art and history.
An ancient city that once serving as the country’s capital throughout 10 dynasties, nearby Nanjing, widely known for its picturesque fall foliage, offers a far more languid, contemplative pace, as compared to the classic Blade Runner–type capital cities of Asia. Most notably, the city has over 60 museums spanning history, art, culture, archaeology, and textiles, amid looming mountains and skyscrapers.
Among these are Nanjing’s first contemporary art museum, Sifang Art Museum, founded in 2005 and home to the eclectic international contemporary art collection of Lu Xun; the Golden Eagle Museum of Art, the famous “hanging private art museum” founded in 2020; and the not-to-be-missed Nanjing Museum with its intensely popular and expertly curated ongoing special exhibition exploring the 3,000-year history of jade.
A new addition to this slew of diverse cultural offerings is the Deji Art Museum, strategically located on the eighth floor of Deji Plaza Phase II in Xinjiekou, which bills itself as “China’s No.1 Business Circle” and has been designed as a sort of cultural axis or “museum mile” for the city.
The museum primarily showcases works collected by Wu Tiejun, founder of the Deji Group and a new addition to the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list, which owns and operates the Deji Plaza development. The museum collection, spanning thousands of years, is divided into ancient Chinese art, the art of Jinling (the ancient name for Nanjing), and modern and contemporary art from China and beyond.
Tapping on the expansive historicity of Wu’s collection, the Deji Art Museum recently opened “Nothing Still About Still Lifes: Three Centuries of Floral Compositions,” which runs until March 2024. The blockbuster exhibition explores the evolution of modern and contemporary art in East and West from the second half of the 19th century to present day, through the presentation of over 100 works focusing on floral compositions.
Speaking with ARTnews at her office above Deji Art Museum, director Ai Lin described the viewing experience of the exhibition as “listening to a dialogue between East and West.”
She continued, “In traditional Chinese art, we mostly will see landscapes, birds, mountains, and flowers. In Western paintings, there is also a focus on a lot of still landscapes. So, there is some kind of connection between both sides exploring the relationship between people and their (physical) surroundings. Floral composition specifically is the kind of topic we could see a lot of connections, connections between nature and human beings and art itself.”
For art historian Joachim Pissarro, the exhibition’s guest curator, it was important that the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue do away with the idea that floral still lifes are only found in European painting traditions. “What we have done is establish a series of dialogues between East and West,” he said. “We were interested in recreating those dialogues, which had never been shown. That’s the uniqueness of the exhibition—you have many exhibitions of floral still lifes before, but you’ve never had one constantly able to go back and forth between East and West.”
The sections of “Nothing Still About Still Lifes” that best epitomize this sense of conversation open the exhibition and are aptly titled “Cross-Pollination” and “Avant-Gardening.” Claude Monet’s 1878 Fleurs dans un pot (Roses et brouillard), Pablo Picasso’s Vase de fleurs (1901), and Piet Mondrian’s Chrysanthemum (1909) are presented alongside works like Pan Yuliang’s Bouquet de Chrysanthèmes Roses (1944) and more recent pieces like Wu Guanzhong’s Lilac (1991) and Sa Dji’s The Prosperity of Life (1991–93).
Yet, the works that steal the show are by artists from China and other parts of Asia. These pieces confidently resonate with history, artistic ambition, and even palpable emotion, much more so than the works on view by their Western counterparts. For example, Liliac, which hammered at $2.5 million dollar at a China Guardian auction in Hong Kong in 2021, is a poignant oil painting that is said to be a visual love poem by Wu Guanzhong for his afflicted wife.
Despite showcasing works such as Jeff Koons’s sculpture Wall Relief with Bird (1991) and Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1964), the exhibition notably suffers from a lack of potency in its contemporary sections by Western artists, but this could be due to the nature and development of the Deji Art Museum collection itself.
When discussing the direction for the museum and collection over the next five years, Lin said there is still much more work to do in terms of their contemporary collection: “We actually took 30 years to build the ancient collection, and we took 10 years to build the contemporary collection, so we still have a lot of different contemporary works to collect and exhibit.”
One of the key objectives of “Nothing Still About Still Lifes” is to bring to light issues facing humanity, specifically the ecological crisis, by highlighting aspects of our physical landscape via artworks spanning centuries. This is also an overarching focus for Deji Art Museum as it intends to further explore the relationship between human society and nature via the showcase of its collection to the general public.
To that end, the museum’s next exhibition intends to present works by famed digital artist Beeple, including his 2023 sculpture S.2122, which the museum bought for $9 million at Art Basel Hong Kong earlier this year. The work showcases a building complex seemingly from the future, with hovering drones and mushrooms, floating in a sea of water.
“The museum collection contains our own history and culture, but we have to look into future development of society as human beings ourselves, so we have to also look into such issues and present it with our collections,” said Lin, “That’s why we choose to make this art museum as a floor [in Deji Plaza], not a single lonely building.”
She continued, “A lot of people in China already know that when they visit a new city, they need to go to the museum, to maybe to see some history, or maybe to see the future. So, for right now we choose to create an art museum which is easy to access and try to give people a new way to think—to give them space to broaden their thinking.”