Saturday, March 16, 2013

More on Chinese Art in Kansas City

Frequent commenter on this blog and blogger himself, Ramesh, in the last post I made on the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Journey Through Mountains and Rivers asked me, "Why Kansas City? Why does Kansas City have such a great Chinese art collection?"

My generic response was that Kansas City is a great arts town. With the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (among others), it's safe to say that Kansas City is punching above its weight in terms of world-class art per capita.

That's not the entire story, though. Earlier this week, I was looking up some information on the scrolls currently being displayed at the Nelson and came across, what I think, are more specific answers to Ramesh's questions.

I'm going to post an entire article from the site I normally wouldn't post the entirety of an article like this, but ViaMei - a website highlighting the Xi'an/Kansas City sister-city relationship - appears to be a defunct enterprise. Their last post was in 2007.

Here is an article giving a nice introduction to how and why Kansas City is home to one of the very top collections of ancient Chinese art in the world:
Ancient China Lives in America 
By Scott Stuart 
Kansas City is the gateway to Asia.

From where Asian art expert Marc F. Wilson sits in his position as Director and CEO of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, this is not an audacious claim. Though situated in the center of the continent, Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins connects visitors with a comprehensive collection of treasures from China's long, unbroken artistic tradition spanning from Neolithic times to the 20th century.  

Masterpieces among the museum's amazing collection of 7,500 works of Chinese art include:

- A polychrome wooden Avalokiteshvara, "Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva," possibly the best-preserved and most magnificent sculpture from this period of Chinese Buddhist art:
- A limestone frieze from the Longmen Grottoes, "Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court," whose counterpoint "Emperor as Donor" resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

- A painting from circa 1049, Xu Daoning's "Fisherman's Evening Song," scholars hail as perhaps the greatest Northern Song landscape handscroll in existence:
- A rare, nearly complete earthenware "Tomb Model of a House" from the Han dynasty (25 to 220 C.E.):
- A precious ritual disk, or bi, some consider the most beautiful piece of jade to have come out of China:

Scholarly superlatives aside, what can visitors to the Nelson-Atkins glean from their individual encounters with these rare masterpieces and how did this amazing collection of 7,500 works of Chinese art in every medium and from every historical period, including tomb figures, sculpture, porcelain, furniture and scroll paintings, come to the American Midwest in the first place?

The short answer to this last question lies in the person of Laurence Sickman (1906-1988), the Asian art specialist who advised the Nelson-Atkins on purchases of Far Eastern art when the museum's collection was being assembled in the 1930s. Acting as the museum's agent in Beijing, a young Sickman exercised a keen eye and a shrewd business sense to send Chinese art works to Kansas City. Sickman went on to become the first curator of Oriental art at the Nelson-Atkins, and led the museum as its second director, from 1953 to 1977. His book with Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China, first printed in 1956, remains a classic work on the history of Chinese culture.

Sickman's legacy of collecting Chinese art of the highest quality is unmistakable in the Nelson-Atkins' holdings in two areas in which he specialized: ancient bronzes and Chinese paintings. A series of ceremonial bronze vessels, weapons and chariot fittings range from about 1200 to 500 B.C.E. The museum's collection of Chinese paintings is among the best outside of Asia, including Ming dynasty masterpieces by Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming and Lu Zhi.

Although the entire collection of fine Chinese art cannot be on view at any one time, a handful of star works representing the highest achievements can convey the creative impulse, cultural context and visual solutions across the ages.

Seated majestically in a reconstructed Chinese temple in the Nelson-Atkins, "Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva," is the destination for pilgrims from around the world. This monumental image of the deity of compassion and mercy appeals to those within its gaze today, just as it would have in the 11th to early 12th centuries. Designed to make supplicants feel enlightened, beings were accessible to the living, the Guanyin's emotional approachability offers a sense of calm and inspiration.

"Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court" is from the Binyang Cave chapel at Longmen, Henan Province. Besides being important as a work of sculpture, the large, 7-by-9-foot limestone frieze reveals clues about Chinese painting techniques in this early period of Chinese Buddhist history. The composition of the eight figures and the modeling that provides maximum effect from light filtering in from the cave entrance demonstrates the great skill of the unknown sculptor. Its Kansas City installation, anchoring the museum's gallery of Early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, attempts to recreate this sense of directional light.

The handscroll format of "Fisherman's Evening Song" allows a close-up encounter with the viewer. Although nearly 7 feet long, the landscape scroll was meant to be seen only about 2 feet at a time. By focusing on a single section, the viewer can appreciate painter Xu Daoning's virtuosity with ink washes and directness of line. Taken as a whole, the 11th-century painting has been likened to a musical composition, with calm passages swelling to dramatic crescendos, expressing the overwhelming vastness of nature.

The jade "Ritual Disc with Dragon Motif" is among the best-known objects in the collections of the Nelson-Atkins. Although its exact function or meaning is lost to the ages, the delicate, 6 ?-inch bi is remarkable from a technical standpoint. Jade, which the ancient Chinese valued more than gold or jewels, is so hard that it must be ground instead of carved. The space between two rings of nearly transparent jade is filled with small, spiral bumps the size of kernels of grain. Two tigers on the outer rim befit this object's likely role in the grave of a great prince or statesman.

Besides promising a rewarding experience of visual enjoyment, the Chinese collection in The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art invites a better understanding of human nature and the creative impulse to Western and non-Western visitor alike. Via the Nelson-Atkins -- in the words of Wilson, who began his career there as a Ford Foundation Fellow under the tutelage of Sickman -- Kansas City is the gateway to Asia.
There's still a lot I don't know or understand about the Nelson's collection of Chinese art and Kansas City's relationship with China in general. Seeing that I'm a China news/history/culture junkie living in the middle of America, these topics are something I'll probably be exploring more in depth as time passes.

I was born and raised in Kansas City. It's also where Qian and I have ended up after moving from Xi'an to the US in 2009. Kansas City isn't the most amazing place on Earth, but it's a surprisingly interesting place in a lot of respects and I'm proud of where I grew up and currently live. I'm excited to learn more about its relationship with my other favorite place on the globe - China.

I'll surely be posting whatever more I find on these topics here.


Ramesh said...

Wow. This is one interesting story. Amazing how one man can create a strong link between two geographically distant places.

Would be interesting to explore whether Sickman's efforts have led to a deeper appreciation and understanding of China in Kansas city. After all that are what museums are for, isn't it - to help us connect and appreciate history and the cultures of lands far off in distance or in time.

It is a sad fact that in today's commercial world of finances and returns, such collections may be virtually impossible to create. How does one explain a return on investment to Kansas of a museum collection of rare Chinese artifacts ....

Maria Guerra said...

I am currently in China studying Chinese But this just made me want to go to Kansas :P Good article. Very excited to see Xi'an and maybe I will end up stateside. thank you

Brandon @ SmartIntern said...

"Kansas City is the gateway to Asia".. Oh, so many times I have uttered those exact same words :)

Charles said...

Beautiful Chinese works of art! I love the model of the house from the Han Dynasty.

wawan said...

Great chinese art collections! one of the highest culture of mankind! I love to see it!