Circles of learning, from Beijing to rural France
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.