The original plan was not only to bring beautiful art to Beijing but also to transport the ideas of the Enlightenment.
However, the attitude of the authorities in China is currently anything but "enlightened," as reflected by a recent wave of repression against dissent.
The German organizers of the Art of the Enlightenment exhibition - the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen Munich – are adamant that the exhibition is therefore of crucial importance.
A rise in visitor numbers indicates that the Chinese public agrees. Although interest was slow at the beginning, people have started coming in throngs, especially in the afternoons and at the weekend. The fact that entrance prices were lowered might also have contributed.
Mixed responses to political messages
A student stands in front of a portrait of Heinrike Dannecker by Gottlieb Schick that dates back to 1802. Dressed in the colors of the French Revolution, Dannecker stares back confidently from the canvas.
"I think the exhibition is very good," says the student. "I particularly like this picture. The girl’s eyes are so lively and the background has been painted perfectly."
She does not seem aware that the painting advocates the revolutionary ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity.
However, other visitors to the exhibition seem to have picked up on the paintings' political messages.
"In China, we understand Enlightenment to be the development of individual consciousness," says one man. "But in the European context, it is about humanity, freedom and democracy."
'Not for the government but for the people'
There is not that much "humanity, freedom and democracy" in China these days. The country’s most famous contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, was arrested just two days after the exhibition opened. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Although the arrest of Ai Weiwei has provoked many calls for the exhibition to be shut down, co-curator Chen Yu does not see why. "I don't understand," he says perplexed. "We worked on this exhibition for so long and with so much energy. Why are people asking for it to be shut down because of one incident? This shows a lack of respect for our work."
The German organizers have also defended the exhibition. "I continue to maintain that this is the right path and the right time even if things are becoming increasingly difficult here," says Martin Roth, the head of the Kunstsammlungen Dresden.
"Nobody knows where this country is going and everything is getting harder. Therefore, it is especially important to do something now and to be accessible to a wide audience. We did not organize this exhibition for the government but for the people."
Author: Ruth Kirchner / act
Editor: Ziphora Robina