Published: January 31, 2012
When the light shines in the eyes of visionaries, it can be daunting to us mere mortals. Such must have the been the case with both William Rockhill Nelson, founder of the Kansas City Star , and the widow Mary McAfee Atkins, a schoolteacher who had inherited a large fortune. Although they did not know each other, nor were they collectors in the classic sense, each envisioned for Kansas City a public art gallery that would play to the global stage rather than the provincial region in which it was situated. In the early part of the Twentieth Century, each left inheritances designated for the purchase of art for public appreciation.
These circumstances led to the founding of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the commissioning of a building for which ground was broken in 1927, and the subsequent assemblage of a collection of Chinese art acquired over the course of several decades that has come to be considered to be among the most important in the United States.
Even before construction of the museum had been completed, Langdon Warner, the museum’s senior consultant on Chinese art, had been accessioning objects in China for several years. He had also met and begun mentoring a brilliant young curatorial star named Laurence Sickman, who would ultimately become curator of Asian art and later director at Nelson-Atkins.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum opened in 1933 to acclaim, not only for the size of its endowments (it was said to have more money than the Metropolitan Museum of Art), but also for the elaborate six-story structure designed by architects Wight and Wight
Although there were riches in Kansas City, on the other side of the world, China was experiencing a beggar-thy-neighbor economy. Consequently, many treasures that had been closely held found their way to market. Warner and Sickman shopped wisely and well, in accord with the museum’s focus to represent China’s highest achievements in every medium and from every historical period.
Among Sickman’s acquisitions was a Fifteenth Century ceiling from the Zhihua Temple in Beijing. A powerful imperial eunuch had commissioned the temple, which was completed in 1444. With the onslaught of tough times in the Twentieth Century, the ceiling was removed and sold off to a coffin-maker, who had good use for the old wood. When Sickman saw the gilded wood ceiling in the coffin-maker’s workshop, he arranged to purchase it and send it back to Kansas City. The ceiling was placed in the Temple Room of the Nelson-Atkins, above a magnificent Twelfth Century polychrome wood figure of Guanyin of the Southern Sea. Prior to the newly installed galleries, the ceiling was never lit and it rarely commanded the attention it deserved.
The ten Chinese galleries at the Nelson-Atkins fell into a state of neglect as the United States became preoccupied with its own global challenges. Then, in 2009, Asian art scholar Colin C. Mackenzie was named senior curator of early Chinese art. His brief, as he states, was to “reevaluate the galleries” that had not been assessed since the late 1960s, the collection and determine the strategy for updating them.
On January 28, the new Chinese Galleries opened. The date is, most appropriately, just after the start of the Chinese Year of the Dragon. The exhibition is divided into three themes: The Silk Road, Ancestors and Ritual, and Luxury in the Tomb.
The main gallery reopened in 2010 †with its emphasis on the Silk Road, a grand aisle leading to the Temple Room where Guanyin of the Southern Sea sits beneath the Zhihua Temple ceiling and before a Thirteenth or Fourteenth Century mural of the Paradise of Tejaprabha. The mural, from the Temple of Guangshengsi, was purchased in the early 1930s. It was reinstalled to emulate the original design of the gallery.
The main gallery will seem foreign to anyone who viewed it prior to the renovation. Many items from the permanent collection, such as the tomb sculptures and the Paradise of Tejaprabha screen, which have not been on view for the past ten or 15 years, have been reinstalled. If it seems that the beasts of burden and sport dominate the glass cases, that is because the story of the Silk Road is best told by surviving residents of tomb culture.
Mackenzie attributes the decline in sacrificial burials to the civilizing influence of the Western Zhou dynasty (1027‷71 BC), although there is evidence of it during the Warring States period (770′21 BC) when sculptures of soldiers and servants were represented. This culminated with the first emperor’s (259 BC′10 BC) tomb, which contained an entire terracotta army. By the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC′20 AD), dancers, shepherds and workers were included.
Created in many sizes and glazes, burial items bespoke wealth and power. Bactrian camels were the ships of the desert and horses the symbols of prosperity. From the Sixth to the Eight Centuries, as silk went out on the backs of camels, gold, silver and luxury goods flowed in.
A set of ten large figures believed to have come from one tomb occupies two tables. The carefully crafted camels are complete with packs and flasks, tents and frames and saddle blankets, or, as one often reads in auction catalogs, they are “heavily laden.” The grooms stand nearby, arms in the air, indicating they were originally pulling on reins that would have been made of leather. Guardian figures behind the grooms are Lokapala, originally from Hindu Buddhist mythology but domesticized by this time and part of Chinese tomb culture. The Lokapala in larger tombs were often depicted in full armor and holding weapons.
Among the figures representing the deceased’s status is a set of Tang dynasty female polo players. Once horses were introduced in China, polo became a craze. They, too, are an indication of how China opened up during Silk Road trade.
Moving into nearby newly renovated galleries, the art focuses on the Chinese preoccupation with ancestors and the afterlife.
The collection of ritual vessels, mostly in bronze, that date from the Thirteenth to the Second Century BC, reflect the raison d’etre of life in archaic times. Simply put, it was to revere, respect and make offerings to the ancestors who controlled all aspects of life from the mundane to the momentous. Communication with ancestors was paramount and could be conducted in two ways.
One could communicate through divination. The cracks on oracle bones, such as the scapula of an ox or a turtle plastron, the underbelly shells of tortoises, could be interpreted by a diviner. One could also offer food and alcohol contained in vessels. The vessels, each with a form following its function, became supreme symbols of communication, the embodiment of religious power.
Overall, viewers will discover that the vessels lead them into the mysterious realm of visual ambiguity. Their motifs tend to be nonrealistic and the designs have never been fully interpreted. Most on display were purchased by Sickman, an accomplishment that John Russell, The New York Times art critic, cast, in 1983, as, “one of the finest single curatorial achievements in museum history.”
The third theme qualifying the Chinese collection is Luxury in the Tomb. To imagine the extent to which the early Chinese tried to ensure immortality, one need only see the 6-inch-thick ceramic tile decorated with mythical images taken from a tomb arch.
The luxe items were intended as much to ensure life would continue in death as it had and also as a means of proclaiming the status of the deceased to the lords of the underworld.
Substitutes and models of real objects were also placed in the tomb. Among these is a model of a five-story tower, one of the largest outside of China, that depicts the landlord seated on the terrace. Significantly, the tower is indicative of the magnificence of architectural style during the Han dynasty. Notably, no Han dynasty towers have survived, but judging from the models, they were taller than any surviving building in the Forbidden City.
Nearby, one of most important jade ritual discs to surface is on display. The jade disc, or bi , measures 6 inches in diameter and dates to the Warring States period or early Western Han dynasty (206 BC‹ AD). Its design comprises an inner and outer disc surmounted by two off-center dragons. Mackenzie said he originally thought there might have been a third dragon, which would have made the design symmetrical, but on examination saw no evidence of that. That fact alone attests to both the rareness of jade and the difficulties that arise in carving the design. Clearly, the carver followed the form of the jade boulder After so many years in the tomb, the bi has picked up brownish staining, although its translucence is still apparent.
The jade bi is another of Sickman’s acquisitions, purchased in 1933, in Beijing.
Among the other luxury items intended to re-create life as the deceased knew it in the afterworld are a gilt bronze ring door handle in the form of a dragon face, a lacquer cup and a bronze mirror on stand.
With more than 7,500 items in the collection, great care as been taken to select the finest for exhibition. Many of the objects are included in widely published books on Chinese art.
To commemorate the opening of the new galleries, the Nelson-Atkins is publishing a catalog titled Masterworks of Chinese Art: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art . Colin C. Mackenzie authors the book with contributions by Ling-en Lu, assistant curator of Chinese art. The catalog is available from the museum store for $29.95.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is at 4525 Oak Street. For information 816-751-1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org .
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