Celebrating the Chinese New Year at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art…

Photo by Brad Austin
Photo by Brad Austin

Dr. Julián Zugazagoitia, the fifth director & CEO of the museum, says there is a great responsibility to display the art found in the Chinese galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “The museum has one of the greatest collections in the world. We must share these treasures with the widest audience possible.”

Since his start Sept. 1, 2010, Zugazagoitia has experienced two celebrations for the Chinese New Year and the renovations of part of the Chinese exhibition space that now includes materials from Chinese tombs. “The collection is revered internationally,” he says. As a matter of fact, he witnessed firsthand how the Chinese appreciated a chance to see several pieces. Sixty pieces of Song and Yuan calligraphy and painting were borrowed from the American museum collections for the exhibition. Organized by the Shanghai Museum, the exhibition was a collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Cleveland Museum of Art.

“We overheard visitors looking at these landscapes while we were in Shanghai,” he says. The art, some of the most treasured Chinese landscape paintings from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art collection were part of a special 60th anniversary exhibition at the Shanghai Museum that opened this month to enormous crowds and much praise.

Work by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Longsen, whose work will grade Kirkwood Hall, as depicted in this computer illustration.

The special exhibition, Masterpieces of Early Chinese Painting and Calligraphy in American Collections, was an assemblage of masterpieces showcasing the best Chinese paintings and calligraphies from the 10th to the 14th centuries. More than 8,000 visitors attended each day. “We saw people with little pocket flashlights and magnifiers. They know the poetry. As an example, Red Cliff is a poem that many Chinese know by heart. It’s a beautiful painting, which we appreciate, but they absorb the art even more deeply,” Zugazagoitia says.

Upon the return of these masterworks from Shanghai to Kansas City, the paintings will be celebrated in grand style at the Nelson-Atkins, giving visitors an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these fragile treasures together. “I believe that this exhibition will have a far-reaching effect on U.S.-China cultural relations,” says Dr. Colin Mackenzie, senior curator, Chinese Art. Ling-en Lu is the assistant curator of Chinese Art. “The fact that four great American museums were willing to lend Chinese masterworks back to China is a tribute to the excellent relations enjoyed between them and the Shanghai Museum. I am also certain that the Chinese visitors hugely appreciate the opportunity they have been given to see these paintings and that they will hope for more cultural exchanges between China and the United States,” Mackenzie says.

Longsen’s art examines nature as a contemporary Chinese person, but his technique of ink and brush harken back across centuries. Photo courtesy of the Nelon-Atkins Museum of Art.

Zugazagoitia expects the art to bridge cultures here as well as well as bridging the past with contemporary Chinese art. Opening Feb. 8, the paintings will be shown in the museum’s Kirkwood Hall and Chinese galleries “in dialogue” with contemporary works by celebrated Chinese artist Xu Longsen, creating a dramatic experience for visitors. Longsen’s work has been inspired by ancient masters of Chinese landscapes, and he will create new works of art in a museum studio while visitors watch. He will also be in residence on the second floor of the museum so visitors can watch him as he works. There will also be art displayed in the Chinese Furniture Room, the Hallway and the Chinese Scroll Room, all on the second floor in the Chinese galleries.

A dynamic installation in Kirkwood Hall includes Longsen’s landscape of epic proportions–85 feet long and 12 feet high–along with the Nelson-Atkins masterpiece Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff attributed to the Northern Song painter Qiao Zhongchang (late 11th-early 12th century), which is 22 feet long. The exhibition of the old and new together, Journey through Mountains and Rivers: Chinese Landscapes Ancient and Modern, will be open through April 8.

“Simply put, we are going to be able to look at the beauty and complexity of Chinese art, plus we will see a great continuity in art. Contemporary Chinese artists continue brush art, calligraphy and ink,” Zugazagoitia says. “There’s a dialogue that will take place.” As visitors to the Nelson-Atkins will come into Kirkwood, they will see Longsen’s art first. “Perhaps we are giving the taste of contemporary and that is part of our responsibility to bring these works to those who love the classic work. We will see that bridge into the present because the collection is traditionally historic. And of course, the door is opened to the past. In doing this, a conversation about China can occur and art comes alive.”

Xia Gui, Chinese, act. 1180-1224. "Twleve Views of Landscape," Southern Song Dynasty. Courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Xia Gui, Chinese, act. 1180-1224. “Twleve Views of Landscape,” Southern Song Dynasty. Courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The exhibition will tell the story of one of the world’s most significant cultural revolutions—the discovery of nature and landscape in China from the 10th-13th centuries. This revolution preceded the European Renaissance by 400 years. Zugazagoitia says the Nelson-Atkins is one of only three museums in America that can fully tell this story. The Chinese art helps to further an appreciation of great art. “The number of treasures shows some of the glory of human kind. With an encyclopedic collection here, we exhibit art from all over the world. We can spur ideas of tolerance and an expanded mind because art has been created by all people. Simply put, the Silk Road comes alive here.” Zugazagoitia, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne Paris IV, with a focus on aesthetics and modernism in the arts, enjoys sitting in the recreation of the Buddhist temple. “Art from another culture has a way of asking questions. Art is a conveyor of ideas. Soon you learn there is no wrong or right way to see the world. Art is a way to open a door to a conversation if you are willing to explore your beliefs and those of others. There is beauty in every object. Art can be used to explore tolerance.”

In his first two years, Zugazagoitia has worked with the staff to expand the reach of the collections. “We hear that art is not accessible here. That door has to be opened and people need to see the relevance. I want to see an emotional connection. Younger audiences are learning about art history and we can help enhance those connections. I get thrilled to see a young person who I remember from a school trip who brings his parents back on a Saturday to see the collection. Perhaps there is a couple on a date. The twitter feed has demonstrated that people get engaged here. I am thrilled with the ways people make the museum their own. That is what moves me. It’s gratifying when people want to spend time. Art has a transformative effect and the staff and board are united in
making each day special at the museum.”

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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