Art of the State: Meishuguan

In and around the National Art Museum of China

The National Art Museum of China (Zhongguo Meishuguan; 中国美术馆), often referred to simply as Meishuguan, is one of the largest art museums in the country. Opened in 1963, the State-funded institution purports to research, exhibit and promote China’s artistic legacy in the modern world. The majority of its collection is works made from the end of the 19th century on: ‘art development history since the beginning of modern China’, as the institution states in its official history.

In line with its funding, which comes from the central government’s Ministry of Culture, Meishuguan also puts a particular emphasis on cultural dissemination: it was the first museum in China with a Public Education Department. Basically, it’s the PRC’s official version of the modern Chinese art canon.

Beijing has a major expansion of Meishuguan planned for the near future. Designs for the new Meishuguan complex – which will be seven times the size of the original and located on the site of the 2008 Olympics – were unveiled in November 2014. The future complex will contain ‘an internal garden and sprawling open-air roof terrace’, and presumably a much greater percentage of the museum’s collection on display at any given time.

Until then, here are a few notes on Meishuguan as it is today, with sidebars on other interesting spots in the neighbourhood to check out if you’re planning a visit.

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Meishuguan officially divides its collection into these categories: traditional Chinese painting, oil painting, print, sculpture, Chinese New Year story, traditional picture story, caricature, watercolour painting, lacquer, porcelain and costumes. As previously mentioned, its emphasis is on modern and contemporary works. (For deeper art history, you’ll want to visit the National Museum of China.) On a recent visit, the museum’s entire first floor was given to contemporary works of calligraphy and ink painting, including an ongoing series highlighting contemporary practitioners of ink wash painting (shuimohua; 水墨畫).

One highlight when we visited was a retrospective exhibition of the work of Li Zhenjian, who modernised ink wash painting by channelling it towards Red subject matter (portraits of happy peasants, tableaus from Long March lore, et al) in the 1950s and ‘60s, and by creating a brand new canon of European-style nudes in the 1980s.

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The current standout exhibit at Meishuguan, on view until May 22, focuses on Lu Xun, a pioneer of modern Chinese literature and thought. The exhibit marks the 80th anniversary of Lu Xun’s death as well as the 100th anniversary of the New Culture Movement, which he was instrumental in founding.

The Lu Xun exhibit is comprehensive, pulling from the collection of the Beijing Lu Xun Museum to show off his written works and translations (he translated Japanese and Russian literature into Chinese), items from his personal art collection (he was especially fond of rubbings of ancient texts carved onto stone), sketches and diagrams from his time as a medical student in Japan and glossy portraits and ink paintings of the man made by contemporary Chinese artists.

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On our visit, two of the five floors with exhibition halls were completely closed. Meishuguan has a quick turnover in its programming, so check their exhibition schedule ahead of your visit to see what’s on. It’s open from Sunday-Tuesday, 9am-5pm. The ticket is free, but non-Chinese people must present a passport to gain admission. No admissions are allowed past 4pm, and the daily ticket allotment is 4,000 tickets, so get there a bit earlier if you’re going on a big national holiday.

If you’re planning a visit, you can easily make a day of meandering the hutong areas around the museum. Time Out Beijing published a Meishuguan neighbourhood guide not long ago. We can also recommend a brand new venue, Fruityspace, opened this past March. An offshoot of the nearby Fruityshop vinyl store, Fruityspace hosts evening screenings of music documentaries on some weeknights, and hosts live bands and experimental musicians on most Friday and Saturday nights and weekend afternoons. The small, one-room basement venue and its stocked beer fridge are located just north of Meishuguan’s east gate, across from a 24-hour Sculpting in Time bookstore and cafe. You can find information on its events by following it on WeChat (@fRUITYSHOP).

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A bit further north, on Meishuguan Hou Jie, you’ll find Meridian Space, an independent art gallery that doubles as a storeroom for original publications and fixed-gear bikes. Where Meishuguan attempts to project an official canon of modern art, Meridian embraces contemporary art’s fluid boundaries and experimental procedures, often promoting work that is interactive and multidisciplinary in nature. Its previous show, Jason Kahn’s Drifting (pictured below), was an installation of field-recorded Beijing sound, supplemented by textual notes made by the artist as he followed his ear through the city.

Meridian’s current show, Inner City Doldrums (on view until May 15), is a video art exhibit following the narrative of a wandering street artist in post-apocalyptic Beijing – not the kind of thing you’ll find in Meishuguan any time soon.
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The National Art Museum of China (中国美术馆) is open from Tue-Sun from 9am-5pm. Remember to bring your passport in order to obtain your (free) ticket. No admissions after 4pm.
Meridian Space

Meridian Space

A creative space, include bar/cafe/workshop/gallery/rentable space

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77 Meishuguan Hou Jie
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