Journey to the East
Published: Feb 16, 2013 07:03 PM Updated: Feb 17, 2013 09:37 AM
A limestone head of a youth wearing a wreath is displayed at the NMC in the exhibition Earth, Sea and Sky. 
Photo: CFP
A limestone head of a youth wearing a wreath is displayed at the NMC in the exhibition Earth, Sea and Sky. Photo: CFP

The Met's exhibit at Nat'l Museum forms natural cultural bridge

Foggy Beijing finally turned sunny and blue on February 1st, the opening day for this year's first major exhibition at the National Museum of China (NMC). The works imported from New York are collected and displayed under the title Earth, Sea and Sky: Nature in Western Art - Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A total of 127 masterpieces, including paintings, ceramics, tapestry and stones, will be on display at the NMC for over three months.

"Nothing is perfect. We considered several ideas, but 'nature' seems to be the theme that works well and that is very universal… Something that we all like," Peter Barnet, the exhibition curator from The Metropolitan, told the Global Times.

Learning from nature

Having not taken the literal translation of the English name, the exhibition's Chinese name is filled with meaning: Dao Fa Zi Ran, (essence is consistent with nature). Chen Lüsheng, deputy director of the NMC, emphasized that, "The exhibition should have a proper name. Chinese people have created nature-themed art works for thousands of years, even from the early period of Chinese pottery. It will be a good stage for Western artists to show the Chinese public [how they view] the relationship between art and nature."

The whole show includes seven sections: Nature Idealized; The Human Presence in Nature; Animals; Flowers and Gardens; Nature in the Camera Lens; Earth and Sky; and Watery World. Among them are not only works from household names like Rembrandt, van Gogh, Monet and Hopper, but also many that were created anonymously in ancient times.

"I guess works by van Gogh or Monet will get more attention. But I think the selection introduces Chinese audiences to different types of projects, different types of sculptures," said Thomas Campbell, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who hopes to see Beijing audiences enjoy the charm of the whole selection.

Earth, Sea and Sky

Among the star exhibits are 1890 painting Figures on the Beach by Renoir, showing two girls at leisure on the beach and boats sailing on the blue sea, and Dutch painter Rembrandt's Flora, which portrays a young lady (thought to be his beloved wife Saskia) wearing a hat decorated with flowers.

One painting from Vincent van Gogh, probably the most well-known Western painter in China, is also showcased at the exhibition - Cypresses, which he created in 1889 after voluntarily residing at the asylum in Saint-Remy in France. Green trees, blue sky and white clouds - it is displayed of course in the sixth section, Earth and Sky. 

The creatures living in nature, animals, are featured in the third section, from the bronze head of a bull to a bronze statuette of a horse in ancient Greece during the 8th century, to a lovely dove in French art work Eucharistic Dove, which would have hung over an altar as an evocation of the Holy Spirit.

Even the snake, the Chinese zodiac symbol of 2013's Lunar New Year, is portrayed in a French platter created in 1575. It belongs to the Watery World section in the hopes of reminding us that life starts from the sea.

From New York to Beijing

About 10 months ago, on April 18, the NMC and The Met reached an agreement about the ongoing collaboration. In a similar event last November, part of The Met's painting and calligraphy collection was exhibited in Shanghai together with three other major museums in the US as a way to test the waters.

"Looking at the development that is going on in China, the new interest in culture and art here in China, I feel very sympathetic," Thomas said. "The Metropolitan has partnered with a number of Chinese museums over the last decades. And as we look into the future, I want to continue with that engagement with that cultural dialogue. And I hope it will be one of numerous collaborations that allow us to share our collections with Chinese audiences."

"Art is an important way for us to understand ourselves and also other people. Culture exchanges like this are more important now than ever before," he said.

In fact, the exhibits arrived in Beijing right after their showing in Tokyo, which ended January 4.

The NMC pays great attention to the show and considers it the museum's fourth-largest exhibition since refurbishing and reopening in 2011, placing just after Art of the Enlightenment, which was a joint effort with three major national museums in Germany. The second largest featured ceramics from the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the third focused on the Renaissance in Florence. The director of the NMC, Lü Zhangshen, considers the exhibition "a milestone for the two museums," saying it will receive "as many visitors as the previous ones."

They have even equipped each exhibit with a QR code that viewers can scan, enabling them to get a brief introduction about a piece. It links to the museum's website via the visitor's smartphone. This is the museum's very first attempt to digitize the way exhibits are shown, and it plans to continue the practice for every exhibition in the future.

World-class ambitions

The NMC hopes to go further toward becoming a world-renowned museum by holding more international exhibitions. "As you all see, van Gogh's Cypresses is printed on our posters, brochures and everywhere. In fact, this is a warm-up for the upcoming special exhibition that we are to have in cooperation with the Van Gogh Museum," said Chen.

Innovations like high-tech interactivity and plans to hold more international exhibitions make welcome news for Chinese museum visitors, yet experts say the NMC still falls well shy of the global standard for becoming a world-class facility.

The president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art explained that four things make museums: buildings, collections, curators, and professional staff. He said, "You can build buildings, bring audiences in, and buy things. The crucial part is the curator staff, the experts who have the vision to develop the program and who build up the relationships with [funding sources] and with the audiences. So the most important thing for any good museum is having really good staff or experts."

If the NMC truly hopes to stand tall among its peers, it will need to heed that advice and make efforts to bring up the next generation of trained museum professionals with a broad world view and cross-cultural knowledge.