Imperial Treasures

How the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is changing the face of cultural relations between the U.S. and China.

Quick, tell me everything you know about chinese culture …If you think of takeout food and fortune cookies then you’ve got it all wrong, says Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, where “Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures From the Palace Museum, Beijing” is on display through Jan. 11, 2015.  “Americans, and I would say Westerners as a whole, understand very little about the Chinese, Chinese culture, the Chinese world,” says Nyerges. “In fact, what little we understand is highly filtered and it’s also very often incorrect.”

A more modern take on the People’s Republic of China might include the single-party political system, Internet censorship and student protests in Hong Kong. But those observations miss the epic arc of Chinese history and culture, which stretches back long before Mao Zedong’s rise to power, and which the current Chinese government is finally willing to share with the world.

“Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing,” throws open the gates of the once impenetrable world of the Ming and Qing dynasties, which ruled China from inside the imposing walled compound of the Forbidden City for nearly a half millennia—1420 to 1911. The exhibit invites us inside to learn about the China that existed before the Communist Revolution, to see artifacts that were long hidden from public view, and to see treasures that not only had never left China before, but had never been outside the Forbidden City gates until they were transported very, very carefully to the VMFA’s exhibit space this fall.

Details of the show were formally announced at a ceremony at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, D.C., last July, and hailed as the first ever partnership between the Palace Museum in Beijing—which now sits on the grounds of the Forbidden City—and an American museum. The show is the centerpiece of a partnership that officially goes back to May 2011, when then-Governor Bob McDonnell signed a deal while on a trade mission to China. The partnership, however, actually goes back much further and runs much deeper than that trip, and is based on personal friendships between colleagues on opposite sides of the Pacific.

This relationship is an important step forward, both in cultural terms and for the reputation and profile of one of Virginia’s top arts organizations. It also represents something bigger: a model for future cultural exchanges that does not depend on the stiff handshakes and protocol of diplomatic gestures, but instead draws on real-life friendships developed by colleagues who work together to break down barriers and produce extraordinary results that benefit both parties.

And the exhibit really is extraordinary. It condenses core elements of the 180 acres and nearly 1,000 buildings of the Forbidden City into one VMFA gallery space, designed to guide visitors from the outer walls of the city to the inner sanctum of the emperors. It begins with public-facing ceremonial artifacts, including multiple hanging scroll portraits, the most striking of which is “Emperor Qianlong on Horseback” (1758), a gigantic depiction of the young emperor reviewing his army for the first time, whose size alone—14 feet tall by 7 ½ feet wide—is imposing.

The painter was Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit who would no doubt approve of the motives behind this exhibit. “He was that day’s version of what we’re doing now, this cultural exchange between West and East,” says Celeste Fetta, education director at the VMFA. “Castiglione was bringing the Jesuit religion to China, but he also lived there for 50 years and adopted a Chinese name, painting for the court but also influencing Chinese painting himself.”

Passing from the first room to the second means walking past eight sets of Imperial Army armor in eight different color schemes. “Our exhibition design folks have done a great job,” says Nyerges, who points to the imperial armor as one of his “Forbidden City” favorites. “You’ve got these eight sentries, four on each side, guarding you as you walk in, and it invokes the whole mystery of the Forbidden City.” This isn’t the metal armor associated with battle but padded silk with copper studs, because the mid-to-late 18th century was a time of both peace and grandeur.

In the second section of the exhibit things get more intimate. Here are personal objects like a brushpen, inkstone, brush dip, chess set, zither, teapot and more—even a throne­—all used by the emperors or members of the imperial court, all intricate works of art worthy of closer examination.

The third section, focused on court paintings, predominantly features portraits of emperors in informal, personal settings. Particularly interesting is “Nine Dragons” (1790), a series of nine handscrolls depicting dragons with expressive faces, drawn in black ink with sparing flashes of color.

The fourth and final section of “Forbidden City” explores religion in the court, mostly Tibetan Buddhism as practiced by Emperor Qianlong. The highlight is “Sixteen Luohans (Arhats)” (c. 1777), a 16-panel folding screen, each panel depicting one of the 16 luohans, or enlightened beings, in jade inlay. Looking at the luohans’ exaggerated features, which would not be out of place if painted on a wall as street art in a city like Richmond, it’s impossible not to feel a connection reaching across the Pacific ocean and back through the centuries.

In total, “Forbidden City” features 200 items, carefully curated from the Palace Museum’s collection of 1.8 million artifacts, their very presence here in the Old Dominion a powerful indicator of the unprecedented level of trust between the VMFA and the Palace Museum.

Response at the official level has been overwhelmingly positive. The English-language newspaper China Daily quoted the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, as saying at the “Forbidden City” opening gala that “the exhibition opens another window not only to the mystery of China’s imperial life, but to China’s history and culture,” which underlines the Chinese government’s determination to appear more open and engaged with the rest of the world. In the same story, Gov. Terry McAuliffe says, “Why does culture mean so much? Because culture like what we are doing tonight opens economic doors.”

This is an accurate stance, given that the world’s second largest economy is increasingly investing in the U.S., and investing heavily in Virginia. Shandong Tralin Paper’s $2 billion plan to build a processing plant in Chesterfield County, where straw and corn stalks from surrounding fields will be processed into paper products, and Shuanghui Group’s $4.7 billion buyout of Smithfield Foods in September 2013 are just two examples.

Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton told me via email that “this exhibition will provide

Virginians with the kind of educational opportunity that you can’t get in a classroom. It’s a wonderful chance for citizens from across the Commonwealth to experience Beijing’s collection and learn about Chinese history, religion, art and politics. In an increasingly globalized world, these kinds of important cultural exchanges are key to breaking down boundaries, building relationships, and learning from one another.”

But the story of how the VMFA established this bond with the world’s most visited museum begins in 2003, in Ohio, when Nyerges and Li Jian, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of East Asian Art at the VMFA, were working together at the Dayton Art Institute. “Li Jian did this expansive show on the art of the Silk Road, looking at the Silk Road as this wonderful conduit from the West, from the Mediterranean, through Iran, through India and into what we now think of as China,” says Nyerges. “It was a spectacular show, encompassing art from five different provinces and 25 different lenders from across the country, and our partner on that was the National Museum of China. In doing that exhibition, our colleague, our partner was a fellow by the name of Li Ji—no relation to Li Jian—who was the executive deputy director then for the National Museum of China.”

The three established an enjoyable and successful working relationship, so when Nyerges took the VMFA director job in 2006 and found himself with an opening for East Asian Arts curator in 2007, he knew Li Jian would be perfect. Meanwhile, Li Ji had moved from the National Museum of China to be executive deputy director of the Palace Museum in Beijing, and so the “first thing we did,” says Nyerges, “was we went over to see him and had lunch and talked about possibilities, and that really gave birth to the concept of creating a partnership.”

Nyerges credits Li Jian with moving that conversation away from the standard “one-off exhibit and then we’re done” relationship, and towards a more far-reaching relationship, with an exchange of ideas, an exchange of people, and, most headline-worthy, an exchange of treasures.

Li Jian, who was born in Beijing but moved to the U.S. to study art, is too modest to take all the credit. But when I saw her in action, preparing the exhibit for opening, she very clearly possessed that special blend of deep, scholarly knowledge and the quiet but unmistakable confidence of someone who knows how to get things done.

Li Jian recalls the genesis of the idea as a mixture of good timing and good connections. “The Palace Museum had just started with exchange programs,” she says. “They are interested in doing them—China now is so open. In the past, the Chinese only did Chinese shows, and now they are opening the doors and have cooperated with European museums, but they hadn’t done anything with American museums. Alex, Robin [Nicholson, former deputy director for art and education at the VMFA, now director of the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh] and I made the trip to Beijing and met Li Ji in the Palace Museum. We were old colleagues and friends, and they knew that they could trust us, that we could work out a very good exhibition.”

Curating the exhibit was Li Jian’s job, and her challenge was not only to select the 200 artifacts that would bring the Forbidden City to Virginia, but to get those artifacts approved to leave the Palace Museum.

“When you organize a show, usually one party needs to provide a primary checklist,” explains Li Jian. “The Palace Museum wanted to do it, but their curators didn’t know the theme and concept of the show, so it would be really difficult for them. I asked them, and they said, ‘Oh, Li Jian, why not, you do it.’ That’s what a curator really wants to do, and so I provided a list and, fortunately, they accepted nearly 85 percent. It took us some time to adjust the rest of the objects, but from the very beginning I had these four themes … and so you build the artwork around these themes.”

Though the Palace Museum dwarfs the VMFA in terms of both physical size and annual visitors, this is very much a two-way partnership. The VMFA is sending its famed Fabergé collection to Beijing in 2016, where it will be seen by anywhere between one and three million people. The partnership is planned to last seven years and goes beyond exhibits to include short and long-term staff exchanges—a Palace Museum paper conservator recently completed a two-month visit to Richmond to share conservation techniques—and an exchange of advice on the most efficient ticketing systems. (The Palace Museum is now adopting a timed ticketing system similar to the method the VMFA used for the 2011 Picasso exhibit, in which a fresh set of tickets is released every 15 minutes, so as to stagger the waves of visitors.)

Virginia-China cultural relations are at an all-time high, and are being led from the bottom up, with real relationships being forged and real trust being exchanged, as well as real treasures. The VMFA’s partnership has been the catalyst for another important trans-Pacific project as well, the Richmond Ballet’s planned 2015 tour of China, which will see them performing in the 15th annual Meet in Beijing Arts Festival. That relationship too, was based on friendships and mutual respect between Chinese and American counterparts. (It was facilitated by Nyerges, who put Richmond Ballet artistic director Stoner Winslett and former dancer-now-director Brett Bonda in touch with Rose Chen, founder of the Rose Group, which promotes cross-cultural understanding between the U.S. and China, who introduced them to the directors of the festival.)

The only question is, what happens next? By the fall of 2015, the VMFA’s seven-year partnership with the Palace Museum will reach its halfway point. I asked Nyerges the “what next?” question. “We haven’t defined it yet,” he says. “And part of the reason for leaving it open is that as we grow that relationship there probably are some things that we did not think of that might result in more projects. Maybe not another major exhibition but possibly some spotlight loans.” He pauses to think about the future. “What comes out of it, well that’s all part of the fun.”

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