Suzhou has a long history of refinement. It has been a centre for visual and performing arts for centuries while Shanghai and Singapore were still muddy backwaters and mangrove swamps. In the field of visual art, including painting, sculpture, ceramics and the crafts such as silk embroidery, furniture making and jade carving the city has a long and noble history. Like most of China these pursuits suffered badly during the Great Leap Forward and especially in the Cultural Revolution.
Over the three decades since 1976, however, and especially in the last five years, the art scene has blossomed. This renaissance coincided with the development of the SND and the SIP. The demand for well appointed offices, sophisticated restaurants and decorations for the homes of arriving expat families spurred a boom in the local art world. This has been sustained by a rising middle class who have flocked to the new housing estates and have walls to decorate and floor space to cover.
1) Pingjiang Lu平江路
Just as in Renaissance time, it is money that patrons the arts and the money for artists in Suzhou is in decorating the abodes of the new dons. The greatest concentration of galleries and shops with high artistic wares is on renovated Pingjiang Lu. In the centre of the five block street is Le Pont des Arts Gallery located at number 112-115 (www.yishuqiao.com.cn). Here they have contemporary work of local and foreign artists. They also have a small shop in the back that sells all kind of art supplies. A wander up this lovely street will take you past beautiful textiles, delicate ceramics, wood and woven crafts and fine art displays. There is even a grouping of handicapped artists’ small studios showing traditional calligraphy, paintings or get-your-own-face sculpted miniature clay bust. You can easily spend a sunny December afternoon on Pingjiang Lu and bring a book to enjoy in one of the many cafes overlooking the canal.
2) Shiquan Jie 十全街
Shiquan Jie, between Moye Lu and Renmin Lu, has half a dozen art galleries, mostly on the south side of the street. Many of the galleries combine traditional Chinese paintings with antiques and decorative stone pieces. These can be found at 337, 663, and 661. Two worthy of a visit of the artist Ren Men’s gallery-come-studio-come-frame shop at number 924. The shop is small and Ren Men will probably have his paints in the middle of the floor and may be working on a canvas. His flower scenes are particularly harmonious and modern and he sells them at very reasonable prices. You can pick up a large, original oil painting for 2000 RMB framed.
The other gallery of note is Pureland, located at 659 Shiquan Jie, which displays a wide selection of paintings on tile of all sizes. The colours are bright and the work delicate but bold. The subjects have a nature or Chinese theatre mask motif. This would be my choice if I was looking for something different and dramatic. If all this inspires you, then pop up the stairs at the Swiss Dream Coffee Shop on the second floor at number 802. Here they have DIY kits with canvas and paints. You can sit at a table overlooking the street and paint while Roy Su makes tea for you and a friend all for 78 RMB! This is right across the narrow canal from the Book Worm.
If it is jade that catches your fancy, follow the winding cobble stone street that comes off Shiquan Jie at 485 and runs around Master’s of the Nets Garden. In these five blocks just behind the Suzhou Hotel there are perhaps 50 to 100 small carvers working away, their wares in small display cases. You can also reach this place by taking the little street south across from Cheers bar at 410 Shiquan Jie. Be careful not to get lost in the maze.
3) True Color MuseumView In Map
The most impressive boost to the contemporary art scene in Suzhou is the True Color Museum in Wuzhong District. This impressive building sits on what could be a lovely canal, smack in the middle of an industrial area slated for gentrification. It is privately owned and open free of charge from 10:00 to 17:00. The space is impressive and the shows imaginative. There are cutting edge conceptual displays and multi-media works. It has a pleasant café near the water and the staff are very helpful. This hot house for artists also offers studio space at very moderate rates. When you visit dress warmly, as the huge space and concrete surroundings make it impossible to heat. As the only museum of modern art, True Color fills a cultural vacuum in this city of six million people.
Add: 219 Tongda Lu, Wuzhong District, Suzhou
Tel: 512 659 68890
Opening hours: Tue-Sun, 10:0-17:00 (last tickets sold at 16:00)
4) The melange
Another initiative, this time taken by the city, is the design village that now occupies the former factory compound of an S.O.E. located just outside the north east corner of the city moat off 280 Lou Men. This agglomeration of 20 buildings is a melange of house interior and industrial design offices, art and dance studios, the “Wonderful” Wine Bar and Café and the Yisen Art Gallery. This occupies a beautifully renovated building at no. 18 Shizi St. that has kept the industrial space but is softened with white walls, wood sculptures and an impressive stair case. The sky light baths the paintings, ceramics and sculptures in natural light. There are some interesting pieces here and just the space is worth the visit.
So the arts are alive and well in Suzhou, and it is not all in the much acclaimed Suzhou Art Museum designed by the famous I.M. Pei. Although there is still lots of room for the development of an appreciation for the arts in Suzhou, the city rests proudly on its wide palette of choices.
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Keywords: art galleries Suzhou things to see Suzhou ping jiang lu suzhou paintings sculptures Suzhou art museums studios Suzhou
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