Ling-en Lu is always on the lookout for overlooked treasures, like these embroidered silk table covers from the bequest of Laurence Sickman, on view in the “Flowers to Frost” exhibition. (Photo by Jim Barcus)
The Nelson’s associate curator of Chinese art challenges the status quo with lively exhibits laced with subtle surprises.
As a child, she was an artistic prodigy, but Ling-en Lu did not end up following the artist’s path. Instead, she poured what she calls her “emotional attachment to art” into art history, a decision that led to her present post: associate curator of Chinese painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The museum’s Chinese paintings gallery, 222, is Ling-en’s sphere of action, where she has built a reputation for accessible exhibits laced with subtle surprises that challenge the status quo of Chinese art scholarship.
“I see an exhibition as an opportunity to illumine areas that haven’t been looked at by the male curators and scholars who pioneered Asian art scholarship and collection,” Ling-en says. “Many curators emphasize masterpieces. I would like to look broader.”
A belief that “fun is an important element in art” also enlivens Ling-en’s shows, which have included images of skinny-dipping girls and amorous men on the prowl, geishas and courtesans, as well as man-killing women warriors.
Women, in all their complexity, receive a fair shake in Ling-en’s exhibits; and she doesn’t shy away from the details of domestic life and child-rearing. Who could forget the cunning children’s shoes shaped like rabbits with pointy noses in her “Secret Messages” show of 2013?
Sparked in part by a work in the Nelson’s collection, Ling-en’s scholarly research includes a study of the deity, Marici, who emerged as a Vedic and Hindu goddess in India. Marici later entered the Buddhist pantheon and was worshipped by various Asian cultures and countries.
But as her sphere of devotion expanded, so did Marici’s symbolic meaning. Ling-en notes that in China, where motherhood is regarded as a woman’s highest calling, Marici’s role “shifted from a fierce warrior who kept devotees safe from violence and peril, to a mother goddess of celestial deities.”
Born in Taiwan, where her father was a businessman and her mother was employed at an office, Ling-en had plenty of exposure to art growing up. “My family had lots of decoration and pictures in the house,” she said, “and my father often purchased art books of both Chinese and Western art.”
But to Ling-en’s surprise, when it came time to go to college, her father discouraged her from enrolling in art school. He was not thrilled either, she said, when she decided to study philosophy. He’d hoped she would choose something more practical.
After college, Ling-en worked a variety of practical jobs, including posts at international trading companies, two libraries, and a commercial gallery, saving much of what she earned.
During a visit to the world-renowned National Palace Museum in Taipei, the tug of art reasserted itself, and she decided to apply to the graduate program in art history at KU in 1993.
She chose KU because it was close to the Nelson-Atkins and its great collection, she said, which she learned about from the catalog, Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting. “The school also had a well-established program of Asian art founded by Dr. Chu-tsing Li, who passed away last year,” she added.
And this time she had her father’s blessing.
“It’s my father who encouraged me to embark on my journey for an advanced education in the U.S.,” Ling-en said, “and he did not question the field I chose. On the dedication page of my dissertation, I attribute my accomplishments to him. Even though he did not quite understand what I chose to do, he supported me.”
She also credits the inspiration and mentoring of her Ph.D. adviser, Marsha Haufler, professor of later Chinese art at the University of Kansas, and Ling-En notes, “a pioneer of exhibitions and scholarship concerning both Asian female artists and later Chinese Buddhist art in the U.S. and Europe.”
The focus of Ling-en’s graduate studies was Chinese art, and for her dissertation she explored a set of still-intact Ming Dynasty wall paintings in the Chinese Temple of the Three Lords in Shanxi.
“Culturally, I’m Chinese,” she said. “I grew up post-World War II, under Chiang Kai-shek’s emphasis on Chinese culture, following the island’s occupation by the Japanese for 50 years.”
Despite Japan’s cultural impact on Taiwan, including construction of numerous public and industrial buildings, the Chiang Kai-shek government tried to eliminate all Japanese influences. “They wouldn’t teach anything Japanese,” Ling-en said.
It was not until grad school in the U.S., she added, that “I discovered the beautiful and profound side of Japanese culture from their art.”
While still writing her Ph.D. dissertation, Ling-en began working at the Nelson-Atkins, doing research for curator Xiaoneng Yang on the “The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology,” an exhibit organized by the Nelson and the National Gallery of Art in 1999 and shown in Washington, D.C.
Two years later she was hired as an assistant curator, and spent a decade assisting Marc Wilson, the museum’s director and curator of Asian art, on a series of exhibitions of Chinese art. Following Wilson’s departure in 2010, Colin Mackenzie, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art, put Ling-en in charge of rotations in the Chinese scroll gallery.
“Paintings are not durable enough to display all the time,” she said. “For each rotation, I came up with a theme or topic.”
Mackenzie is delighted with what Ling-en has accomplished. “Over the past five years Ling-en Lu’s imaginatively conceived and beautifully executed exhibitions have established the Chinese paintings gallery as a destination for lovers of Asian art,” he said in a recent email.
One of her earliest exhibitions was the 2012 “Faces from China’s Past” portraiture show, organized with Marsha Haufler. Inspired by a sketchbook of Chinese faces that Haufler and several graduate students discovered in the collection of KU’s Spencer Museum of Art,” the exhibit focused on figurative work by unknown artists, departing from the usual scholarly focus on landscapes by famous masters.
By including portraits of real women as well as court beauties, illustrations from erotic novels as well as portrayals of idealized male scholars, the exhibit offered a fuller look at Chinese society and customs than the traditional landscape show.
“Faces” took cues from noted Chinese art authority James Cahill’s 2010 book, Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, in which he argues for the merits of art made for everyday use.
Ling-en followed the “Faces” show with “Secret Messages,” offering a view into Chinese culture and values through objects like those children’s slippers, and artworks featuring auspicious images used to decorate gifts
Her 2014 “Living with the Spirits” exhibit continued the trend of looking beyond the canon, showcasing the popular prints the Chinese use to decorate their homes during the holidays.
“Each exhibition (I do) includes underrepresented works of art and untold stories,” she said. “If we only study masterpieces, we miss a good chunk of history.”