Cir­cles of learn­ing, from Bei­jing to ru­ral France

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

These bronze fig­u­ra­tive works are by sculp­tor Wang Shugang, placed in a court­yard of the Tem­ple Res­tau­rant in a Bei­jing hu­tong. The venue has been con­verted from halls of wor­ship around a cen­turies-old tem­ple; as I ap­proached, in the low light of a show­ery af­ter­noon, the gath­er­ing looked al­most real, with these eight for­mally suited chaps hun­kered in earnest con­ver­sa­tion. Later I read up on the sculp­tor, whose style is de­scribed as “cyn­i­cal re­al­ism”, and learnt that one of his trade­mark styles is squat­ting fig­ures.

I love the idea of such ran­dom dis­cov­er­ies and the im­pe­tus to dis­cover more. The first time I vis­ited Rome and had the oblig­a­tory espresso and gelato in Pi­azza Navone, I was so en­tranced by Bernini’s Foun­tain of the Four Rivers that I re­turned each day to ad­mire its Baroque ex­trav­a­gance and spent sev­eral nights read­ing about this 17th-cen­tury sculp­tor whose work had some­how eluded me dur­ing high-school art history lessons. In Pe­nang’s Ge­orge Town this year, I found the abun­dant street art charm­ing and oddly in­ter­ac­tive as tourists posed against mu­rals and by ex­ten­sion be­came part of the fab­ric of the im­ages. You can imag­ine them think­ing, “Look at me … I re­ally am on a rusty bi­cy­cle, pat­ting that cat, pressed into a door­way frame.” Like many visi­tors, I snapped the walls, found more in­for­ma­tion, took notes and made sure I didn’t miss any of the street art beat.

Then there are the pil­grim­ages. Two years ago, in Paris, I stood be­fore a se­ries of Berthe Morisot can­vases at Musee Mar­mot­tan Monet and thought I would stop breath­ing. The Im­pres­sion­ist works of my favourite artist were so fa­mil­iar I could close my eyes and imag­ine her brush­strokes but the re­al­ity of see­ing the orig­i­nal Au Bord du Lac, with that lit­tle girl and the glid­ing swan, made me all but swoon. Next day I be­gan a week-long art-themed cruise along the Seine. It felt a lit­tle bit like gate-crash­ing Renoir’s Lun­cheon of the Boating Party. On the cruise we stopped at Au­vers-sur-Oise where Vin­cent van Gogh is buried in a coun­try ceme­tery. Our group of art lovers knelt in a cir­cle around his grave in a si­lence as stony as Wang Shugang’s gen­tle­men bronzes, a world away in Bei­jing.

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