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Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution

March 3, 2010 - May 23, 2010

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Jack Birns: Shanghai, 1948; Gelatin silver print; 10 1/2 x 10 1/8 in.; transfer from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.

In 1946, Life magazine assigned the young photographer Jack Birns to Shanghai with instructions to document the ongoing Chinese civil war. A selection of the resulting photographs, drawn from the BAM collection, portrays the upheaval of war, societal changes, and the approaching revolution that would transform Shanghai and China forever. Birns documented the new Shanghai, with its foreign concessions and cosmopolitan attitude, and captured the clash between a nascent consumer culture, enabled by the introduction of Western goods, and the traditions of China’s past.

Investigating the city and its inhabitants, Birns reveals both Shanghai’s sophistication and its gritty underbelly. In one photo we see a view of the Bund, an elegant stretch of classical Western architecture that lines the busy Huangpu River bank, cluttered by barges loaded with U.S. cotton for a nation strapped by rationing. Other photographs show the desperation of street urchins stealing bits of cotton from the waste strewn along roadways. Just as the people and the city itself seem lost in a downward spiral of poverty, Birns turns his lens on a wealthy Chinese woman in a fur coat strolling past a giant billboard featuring the Hollywood star Lana Turner in a pitch for a soap product.

Shanghai, with its large foreign population, is depicted by Birns as a last playground for a generation of foreign diplomats and businessmen who will be quickly swept away by the impending civil war. While Western women of leisure recline on lawn chairs in a country club atmosphere, Chinese women are seen as bar hostesses, dressed up with hair curled, playing solitaire while they wait for the evening to begin. The rush to be exotic, tempting, and sexy results in ordinariness under Birns’s scrutiny.

Birns was sent to China by a news organization that overtly supported the Nationalist army’s struggle against the Communists, a struggle that was being played out both in the urban area of Shanghai and, perhaps more dramatically, in the far north of China. His photos of Mukden (Shenyang) of late January 1948 show a nation at war, with the Communists pushing the armies of Chiang Kai-shek back to the south. During this time Birns inadvertently filed photos of staged combat; while these ran in the magazine, his images of Nationalists committing horrific atrocities were denied publication.

Birns’s political photographs convey the U.S. perception of the rightfulness of the Nationalist cause, as exemplified in a stunning portrait of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek as he leaves a meeting in October of 1948. Yet Birns also captures images of university students around Shanghai taking to the streets in protest against the policy to fund Japan’s postwar recovery effort, and observes hostesses and textile workers, spurred on by Communist leaders, joining in their own protests. Seen together, Birns’s photographs are wide-ranging and stark reminders of the turmoil of Shanghai in the years following World War II.

A catalog of Jack Birns’s photographs, with essays by Orville Schell, Carolyn Wakeman, and Birns, accompanies the show. This exhibition is organized in conjunction with a Bay Area–wide cultural celebration of Shanghai on the occasion of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai this May. For information on additional exhibitions and events, including the exhibition Shanghai at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, visit www.shanghaicelebration.com.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art