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Shanghai crowds join National Gallery celebration

Art venue's anniversary marked with show in China

By Julian Shea in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-05-01 04:20





The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square is a familiar sight to visitors to central London. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Record-breaking crowds in China have helped get celebrations for the 200th anniversary of one of the world's most visited art museums off to a perfect start, after a touring exhibition from London's National Gallery proved to be a popular hit in Shanghai.

May 10 marks 200 years since the gallery, situated on Trafalgar Square, a short walk from London's Chinatown, opened its doors.

The anniversary is being commemorated with a year of celebratory events, one of which is the ongoing tour of Asia of 52 pieces from the gallery's collection, including works by masters including Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Vincent van Gogh, and Claude Monet.

After stop-offs at the Shanghai Museum, the National Museum of Korea, and the Hong Kong Palace Museum, from May until September, the display will be at the Chimei Museum in Taiwan.

"We're thrilled to work with prestigious and important destinations in each location, and the reception has been rapturous – more enthusiastic than we could have imagined," Jane Knowles, director of public engagement at the National Gallery, told China Daily. "By the end of the Hong Kong leg of the tour, more than 1 million people had seen the exhibition, and our local partners in Shanghai said when it was there it set a record for ticket sales for a paid exhibition in the whole country. We're incredibly grateful for the love and enthusiasm of the audience."

The National Gallery may be familiar, even to Chinese people who have not visited the United Kingdom, because it forms the backdrop for London's Chinese New Year festivities, held in Trafalgar Square every year.

The gallery was founded by an act of Parliament in 1824 with the express purpose of making "the best possible art" available for the enjoyment of the public, free of charge, with the government providing money to buy the initial collection of 38 paintings.

The gallery now has more than 2,300 works, and its motto of "Art for everyone, everywhere" remains close to its founding spirit and is the encapsulation of the plan for the 200th anniversary celebrations, and the current tour.

"We don't own the paintings, we hold them in trust for the nation, and sharing them around the country, so you don't have to come to London to see them, is a fundamental part of what we do," Knowles explained. "To launch the 200th anniversary, we've got an event called National Treasures, which consists of 12 exhibitions opening across the country at the same time, each centered around one of our masterpieces, which has gone out on loan. We've left it entirely up to local organizers how to exhibit and curate it, so each one will be totally different."

This adventure of throwing artwork open to individual interpretation is something that has also been seen on the Asia tour, with great success.

"For us, the tour has been about global dialogue and cultural exchange," said Knowles. "When the pictures have been seen in China they are displayed and interpreted in ways we would never think to do. It's eye-opening and innovative, like seeing them again for the first time."

Like so many other institutions, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Gallery put huge effort into providing online and digital content, much of which has been retained, and Knowles said the China visit had given them more ideas.

"There's a huge appetite for online content, so we want to get over the barrier that you can only see these works if you live here. We have great social media channels, giving the public amazing glimpses of what it takes to run the gallery, and the Shanghai exhibition WeChat moments got millions of views, so that's something we're keen to explore further."

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