Through Shên-kan: Sterling Clark in China
Through Sept. 16
Sterling Clark is best known as the art collector who, in 1955, graced this bucolic town with a museum full of Impressionists and Old Masters. Nobody tends to think of him as a China hand. Yet in 1912, the same year Clark bought his first Van Dyck and Bellini in Paris, a publisher in Britain brought out “Through Shên-kan,” a detailed account of the Singer Sewing Machine heir’s 480-day scientific expedition in northwestern China.
The Clark Art Institute has marked the book’s 100th anniversary with two shows that honor its founder’s interest in China. One focuses on the collection of hard scientific data; the other on beautiful funerary objects that challenge conventional narratives of China’s past.
The presentation of “Through Shên-kan: Sterling Clark in China,” on view in the institute’s Stone Hill Center, is almost clinical. The building—designed by Tadao Ando—is austere, and within its concrete walls the display cases are uniformly pristine and white. Through photographs and memorabilia, assistant deputy director Thomas J. Loughman tells the story of Clark’s engagement with China. It began when, as a military officer in the Philippines, Clark was sent north in 1900 with the China Relief Expedition, a multinational effort to quell the Boxer Rebellion. After a stint in Washington, Clark returned with his company to Beijing in 1903.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute ArchivesRobert S. Clark (left) and Arthur de C. Sowerby with Christmas Day’s Bag of Pheasants.
Two years later he resigned from the Army—but not from China. By 1908 Clark had joined the British Royal Geographical Society, contacted the Smithsonian Institution (which was building the National Museum of Natural History), and returned to China to lead an expedition. A topographical map traces the route, starting some 300 miles southwest of Beijing in Shanxi province and wending its way along ridges and across rivers, through plateaus and foothills for almost 2,000 miles to Lanzhou in Gansu province. There, in the summer of 1909, villagers killed a member of the team, and the incident alarmed the British and U.S. embassies enough to halt the expedition.
The trip itself, with its 38-man team and its bevy of mules and donkeys, was no doubt a dusty, grimy affair. Its mission, however, was to catalog and categorize, and it is this orderly spirit that the show captures. Observations about rainfall and temperatures fill data columns. Rough terrain is abstracted into topographical maps. And some of the mammals and birds that the team’s naturalist, Arthur de C. Sowerby, trapped, killed and preserved with arsenic are laid out as though on mortuary slabs, each tagged with a handwritten blue label. Among them a striped hamster, a chubby Bengal cat, a delicate kingfisher and a brown bat that proved to be one of a number of new subspecies the expedition identified.
Shanxi Museum, TaiyuanA Northern Wei dynasty sarcophagus dated 477
Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries From Northern China
Through Oct. 21 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
Like Clark’s expedition, the second show, “Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries From Northern China,” focuses on Shanxi and Gansu provinces and, through schematics of tombs and photographs of the excavations, calls attention to objects as sources of knowledge. It also does justice to their aesthetic appeal. Guest curator Annette L. Juliano provides enough information to engage viewers without overshadowing the works. Dark walls set off the delicacy of paintings and carvings, while archways between galleries echo the shapes of the excavated tombs’ entryways. The overall mood is one of discovery.
The centerpiece of the show is a stone sarcophagus that replicates a wooden structure with a columned porch, tiled roof, double doors and outer walls studded with raised bronze bosses and door-knockers sporting monster masks. As in its wooden prototype, all the elements interlock, precluding the need for mortar. Excavated in 2000 in Shanxi province, it dates to 477 and was the final resting place of Song Shaozu, a regional inspector in the Northern Wei empire (386-535). Scholars differ as to whether it emulates a home or temple structure.
There is no question, however, that the sarcophagus’s detail and workmanship further erode a lingering view of history that describes the centuries between the collapse of the Han in 220 and the rise of the Tang in 618 as a period of disarray and disruption. This sarcophagus and its hundreds of funerary sculptures, or mingqi—of which a handful are on display—suggest instead a society stable enough to support a readily available network of skilled artisans and builders.
“Unearthed” also illustrates far more continuity than previously assumed. Bookending the Song Shaozu tomb are funerary objects from the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577) and a handful of objects from a Tang Dynasty (618-907) tomb. As the schematics and objects show, the burial chambers share similar layouts and funerary art. As an added treat, this Tang tomb does not appear to have been looted, enabling archaeologists to document its contents and their placement and to deploy conservation technologies to retain the vibrancy of the mingqi’s pigments. These funerary sculptures are some intensely fearsome guardians.
Pi Jung-pei, head of police in Yulin, Shaanxi
This brings us to two Tang figures that introduce the show—one depicting a Han Chinese civil official, the other a military official with Central Asian features. This is no surprise: Tang culture has long been viewed as highly cosmopolitan. What is surprising is that the earlier Northern Qi tomb, notwithstanding its typically Chinese monster-masks and architecture, contained a skeleton that was far too tall to be presumed ethnically Han. Chances are that Song was a Central Asian whose family had adopted Chinese names. This bolsters the view that Tang society was not so much a radical change from the preceding northern dynasties as a continuation and elaboration.
In this respect, “Unearthed” is the mirror image of “Through Shên-kan.” One show chronicles a time when scientists were busy categorizing the world; the other reflects the current fascination for those places where the lines blur.
Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2012