Interview: NYC's Met committed to comprehensive display of Chinese art, says senior curator

Source: Xinhua| 2019-12-27 14:10:01|Editor: Xiaoxia
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NEW YORK, Dec. 26 (Xinhua) -- As one of the most visited museums in the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) here has "a very big commitment" to giving people "a real sense of the glories of Chinese art," a senior curator of the museum told Xinhua in a recent interview.

"We have more space devoted to Chinese art than any of the museums outside of China," said Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Met.

The museum hopes to make visitors from China, which tops its sources of international visitors, feel proud of their history and culture through the way the exhibiting items are displayed, he added.

The Met began collecting Chinese art in 1879 by purchasing some 1,000 Chinese ceramics, because a lot of Americans collecting European art wanted to have Qing ceramics along with their old master paintings as home decoration, said Hearn, who joined the Met in 1971.

During over a century's development, especially after a substantial expansion of the Asian Art Department in the 1970s, today's Chinese art collection at the Met is composed of more than 14,000 pieces of jades, bronzes, lacquer, textiles, ceramics, and works in other media, ranging from the third millennium B.C. to the present, according to the museum.

"This was possible because of the generosity of New York patrons and collectors," said Hearn, who witnessed most of the growth here, adding that 80-90 percent of the Met's collections came as gifts.

One of the major patrons of Hearn's department is Brooke Astor, a lady from New York's prominent Astor family, who spent much of her childhood in China. A 9.6-million-U.S.-dollar donation from her family foundation led to one of the most attractive spots of the museum -- the Astor Court, which was modeled after a 17-century Suzhou Garden courtyard that opened to the public in 1981.

Since 1980, the Met started to hold special exhibitions featuring Chinese art, and over 100 pieces of bronze dating back to as far as over 3,000 years ago were borrowed from museums across China to form the Great Bronze Age of China that year, which turned out to be sensational at the time.

During the past decades, increasingly active bilateral exchanges have facilitated a number of successful exhibitions on both sides. In 2017, the Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220) featuring terra cotta warriors and other types of rare objects from 32 museums in China welcomed over 355,000 visitors in some 100 days, according to the Met.

"I think it was the 18th exhibition that we've done with China, and we are very proud of the fact that we have this long tradition of working with Chinese museums," said the department head. "Our colleagues in museums in China are very supportive of what we try to do."

In recent years, the museum has also tried creative approaches in curating China-themed exhibitions. China: Through the Looking Glasses, a 2015 cross-department exhibition featuring 140 pieces of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear alongside Chinese art, explored the impact of traditional Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion instead of directly showing Chinese art.

"It was to showcase how China as an idea, and bits and pieces of Chinese culture had a profound impact on (Western) cinema, costume, and culture," he added.

For example, a dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent was put next to an Eastern Zhou vessel with similar details "to show that here's a modern artist looking at something that's 2500 years old but still making something new with it," Hearn elaborated.

The show has attracted over 810,000 visitors from worldwide, making it one of the top visited special exhibitions in Met's history, according to the museum.

Hearn believes in the power of art in promoting understanding between countries. "People come to art with an open mind. I think if they're fascinated by the work of art, then they want to know about the artist. They want to know about the context in which the artist lived. They want to know about China."

"For us, to be able to show Chinese art from Neolithic times down to the present is a way to introduce people to the longest surviving culture in the world," noted the 69-year-old curator who has dedicated nearly half a century to studying and showcasing Chinese art.

He said he really hopes to see Chinese visitors coming through the museum "with a critical eye" and thinking the Met is showing their culture in a responsible way and at a high level, so that people from outside China could understand the significance of this culture through the Met's exhibitions.