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Just pretty pictures

April 9, 2011

Tiananmen Square seems an unlikely place to start a dialogue on the human freedoms championed during the Enlightenment. But the German museums hosting an exhibition there insist the show is not political.

Shipwreck in a Stormy Sea, 1770, by Claude Joseph Vernet
Even pretty pictures can be powerfulImage: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen/Sibylle Forster

The power of the one-party state is nowhere more evident in Beijing than at Tiananmen Square. Police, military police and security guards stand out among the countless visitors. A portrait of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China, hangs diagonally opposite the huge National Museum. Below it runs the Avenue of Eternal Peace, along which tanks and troops advanced during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

This of all places is where the exhibition "The Art of Enlightenment" recently opened with Guido Westerwelle, Germany's foreign minister, as a guest.

Berlin, Munich and Dresden's State Art Collections have joined forces to display almost 600 exhibits for one year to try and make the Enlightenment understandable, both as a cultural and historical era which laid the foundations for liberal values and human rights in Europe.

However, Martin Roth, General Director of Dresden State Art Collections, says the exhibition does not aim to deliver an explicit political message. Instead, the goal is to help guests grasp the topic of Enlightenment.

"That's what we want to try and do with this exhibition," said Roth. "I don't expect every visitor to understand it, but that's no different to how it would be in Germany. You need to engage with the topic, but you are allowed to just enjoy the beautiful pictures too."

"Atelier Scene," 1808, by Marie-Gabrielle Capet
"Atelier Scene," 1808, by Marie-Gabrielle CapetImage: Bay. Staatsgemäldesammlungen München, Foto: Sibylle Forster

Oil paintings without debate

But there's clearly much more to the exhibition than just beautiful pictures. It is divided into nine core themes, each of which show different aspects of the Enlightenment, such as the birth of history, the emergence of modern science in the 18th century and the emancipation of the public sphere, which became the foundation for the European understanding of freedom of opinion and pluralism.

The organizers hope these topics will initiate a debate, but Ai Weiwei, one of China's most celebrated artists, said prior to his arrest this week that there is little chance of that happening,

"On the one hand, Europeans spawned these wonderful values in the 17th and 18th centuries, but to this day China has not dared to confront them," he commented. "An exhibition of oil paintings is okay in the government's opinion but the debates that go with them are forbidden. That's not without a touch of irony."

Ai Weiwei's arrest earlier this week makes his comments all the more poignant. The artist has long been a vocal critic of the regime and has had many run-ins with the authorities. This time, officials say he is accused of "economic crimes."

Scope for public debate in China has become more limited over the last few years and an increasing number of topics are taboos. Xu Youyu, a philosopher and Enlightenment expert, complains that room for critical discourse is now more restricted than it has been over the last 30 years. He has called for China to have an Enlightenment of its own.

"The ideas are not outdated," insisted Xu, who said he prefers German philosopher Immanuel Kant's definition of Enlightenment, who always spoke of man's "emergence from his self-imposed immaturity."

For China, Xu said, "Enlightenment is the reestablishment and protection of human rights."

Inside the exhibition "The Art of Enlightenment" at the National Museum in Beijing
The paintings can be viewed on many different levelsImage: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Foto: Frank Barbian

Confucius statue a clear response

With the National Museum of China as co-organizer of the exhibition, real debates on the core values of the Enlightenment are not anticipated.

Even Tilman Spengler, a sinologist officially involved in the preparation of the exhibition for the German team, was denied a visa to enter China for the launch of the exhibition. The Chinese Foreign Office claimed he was "not a friend of the Chinese people."

The official Chinese side of the project places little emphasis on the Enlightenment values of freedom and emancipation and instead focuses on the darker side of European development - including colonialism, under which China suffered.

The Chinese team has already rather reluctantly answered the question about which values the National Museum is putting in the foreground - by erecting a huge statue of Confucius in front of the museum's north entrance several weeks ago. Probably the most Chinese of all philosophers, he stands not only for the rediscovery of one's cultural roots but also for the subjection of individuals to the will of leaders.

Author: Ruth Kirchner / Aya Bach / mm

Editor: Kate Bowen