Hadrien de Montferrand Gallery, a French-owned gallery devoted to works on paper, is currently exhibiting sketches from more than 20 iconic works, dating from 1950-1980, all master works in the NAMOC collection. Through the display of preparatory studies and sketches by the artists themselves, the show deconstructs the production methods of art in this unique period of Chinese history, and offers a first-hand look at valuable art historical documents. Here, Hadrien talks about his experiences putting the show together, how he developed his unique approach to historical Chinese works, and reactions from the community of artists. “History in the Making: Sketches for Iconic Paintings” “创造历史：经典绘画手稿” is on display in 798 until late June. See gallery website for details.
[Left,Xiao Feng & Song Ren, sketch for “Dr. Bethune,” 1974; Right: Jin Zhilin, study for “Chairman Mao in the Mass Production Movement,” 1959]
My interest in this period was actually sparked over a dinner conversation with Chen Danqing, where he told me a lot of things about the Mao era, like that the wife of Mao didn’t want the painters to sign the paintings, etc., he gave me some “appetizers” that made me wonder what had happened during this period. So I met the first artist, who talked to me about the period, about how artists were perceived, and I really wanted to do a show about it, because I had never seen anything about it, except for the 60 years of drawings exhibition at CAFAM.
So I met with other artists, perhaps 20-30 artists from this period, and it was first a discussion, I also told them about a show that I might be doing. Eventually I found a logical theme that could bring them all together, the first theme was “portraits.” The first show last year featured portraits from 1955-75, and it was a huge success, in the sense that we really had some very high quality people who came, and the artists were really happy; for many it was also the first time they were shown in a commercial gallery. We really tried to do our best to make it happen in a good way, with a nice catalog, a good exhibition layout.
So after the first show I asked, “what next?”, and our team lined up a few other themes, one was, of course, “landscapes” and the other one was “nature morte,” but at on the top of our list was to feature preparatory sketches for paintings in the national collection. And, yes, we worked for maybe a year and a half, to put together forty drawings or sketches for paintings that are in the Chinese national collection.
Like any work in a gallery, I discovered, it’s really a question of human relationships, people earning your trust and earning the trust of other people. Not just the artists, you also have collectors, the press, and they have to believe what you show and believe in your instincts. I could tell thousands of stories from this year and a half of work …. For example Jin Zhilin has been here many times, we have had wonderful talks, he loves France, it was also these human experiences that really taught me a lot about China.
I think that the families and artists were quite interested to see a foreigner doing this exhibition, and they are really, really close to their drawings. I could sometimes feel that after we would sign the contracts, and when I was taking the drawings out of the house, you could see something in their eyes… as if maybe they had made the biggest mistake of their lives. Sometimes you feel quite bad, but on the other hand, you know that you’re going to do something good for the work.
The Dong Xiwen sketches are actually not allowed to leave China, You have ten artists whose production is not allowed to leave China, like Li Keran, Dong Xiwen, etc. And when I was preparing the show, my only fear was that a Chinese museum director, or someone from the Cultural Bureau would come to see it, and there would be some problems because these works are in a foreign gallery. Not in the sense that “he’s cheating” or breaking the law, my concern was that there may be trouble because this is a French gallery. This was my only fear.
[Sun Xizi, sketch for “In Front of Tiananmen,” 1964]
I think that the role of a gallery is to show what you like, perhaps you like it for its aesthetics, or the historical value. I don’t think that it is our role to analyze what we show. In the case of these two shows, I really thought I should get an historian to help me, or to put together a nice catalog, but I want to keep to my role, and I’m here to show what I like. In the portraits show for example, I’m sure that I missed a lot of great artists—important in terms of art history, or historical value—but I could never put together an exhaustive show with a similar train of thought. So, I decided to focus on showing what I liked, and thus put together a show by making the most of the information I have, or can get. We’ve sent 5 students to the CAFA library to see if these images have ever been published, or if the sketches have ever been exhibited before, we do this kind of research, but research based on fact, not based on analysis.
Of course in the show you have artists who are well known, and I know that its very complicated in terms of their ranking or importance––the head of CAFA is important, the head of China Art Academy also, but how do you position them so? Maybe someone else is the son of whoever… so, shall I do it in alphabetic order, starting with the name of the artist? Should I start my catalog with the name of the painting? In both the gallery and the catalog presentation, we had quite a lot of issues in terms of how to present information in the most logical, fact-based way. We decided to go chronologically in the catalog, with the famous image coming before the sketch—first the painting, then the drawing. I was faced with questions that galleries don’t normally encounter.
Through the process, I think I’ve learned more about history than art history, and the most incredible thing has been meeting really great people, and having them share their history with me. It was really amazing. Also, when we opened the show, most of the artists who are still alive came, and some of them haven’t seen each other in 20 years, even though they even shared rooms in St. Petersburg, etc. When they saw each other again, it was really touching. Really touching. I know for a fact that the artists were really happy with the way things were presented, we had a good mix of artists, in the sense that they all belong on the same level. This would have never have succeeded if there had been two or three artists who weren’t famous at all.
What I often say about sketches and preparatory studies is that the painting is like writing your autobiography, you are writing it knowing that people will read it. Doing sketches is like writing for yourself, it’s like a diary. So you are much closer to the artist that any painting or finer work, because you don’t have a filter, it is much freer.
Interview with Lee Ambrozy; A Chinese version of this interview was posted here, on artforum.com’s Chinese edition.