Sun, 15 Oct 2000


Oxford opens gallery for Chinese painting

By Graham Heathcote

OXFORD, England (AP): Chinoiserie enjoyed a wave of popularity in Britain in the 1740s, but the nation is only now opening its first gallery devoted to Chinese painting.

Scholars from China, Taiwan, the United States and Britain came for the Oct. 11 inauguration of the Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which was also be attended by Chinese ambassador Ma Zhengang.

"Many of the paintings will be shown for the first time for the simple reason that there was never anywhere high enough to hang them," said Shelagh Vainker, assistant keeper of Chinese art at the Ashmolean before the opening of the exhibition. A gallery or museum with particularly high ceilings is needed to display Chinese painting because art work tends to be tall rather than wide.

Chinese painting has the longest continuous history of any art in the world - 3,000 years - but it was hardly studied in the West until the 20th century. By that time the old masters were expensive and difficult to buy and authenticate because there were many copies and fakes.

The Ashmolean, part of Oxford University, was founded in 1683, long before China had a museum of any kind. While its department of Eastern art had Chinese antiquities, it did not start to buy Chinese paintings seriously until the mid-1950s when Peter Swann was in charge.

Swann's successor, Mary Tregear, who had come from Hong Kong University Museum, bought works from private collections when the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 cut off the flow of paintings from China.

The Ashmolean collection was enhanced in 1995 by a gift of 130 modern Chinese paintings from the family of Jose Mauricio and Angelita Trinidad Reyes, originally from the Philippines.

The world's best collections of Chinese paintings are in China, Taiwan and Japan. The United States has four outstanding collections at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Cleveland Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

"The British Museum and Ashmolean collections are the only significant ones in Britain," Vainker said. "The British Museum's is much the larger and with older works but their space is filled with antiquities and their paintings aren't displayed. Our paintings are more important for the modern era.

"There are a thousand works in the Ashmolean, some 500 paintings plus prints and rubbings, and 40 to 50 of them will be display at a time. We'll change the display two or three times a year and hope to have loans and contemporary Chinese painting," Vainker said.

"The Chinese didn't have museums until the early 20th century so paintings were never publicly displayed there. To see paintings in China, people had to seek access to private collections," the curator said.

"Painting itself was rather a restricted activity, as people could only learn to paint if they could see those collections. Hence the great amount of copying which has gone on for centuries."

Chinese artists painted without a fixed viewpoint, preferring verticals to horizontals. They paint in ink and water-based colors on scrolls of paper on silk and occasionally directly on silk, adding silk mounts at top and bottom which make the works even taller.

"We have now got the tallest case in Britain, nearly 11 feet high (3.3 meters high) by 41 feet long (12.3 meters long), very shallow, so we effectively glazed a wall to contain a number of works," Vainker said.

A smaller case opposite will contain hand scrolls, folding albums and fan paintings.

The new gallery was funded by an anonymous benefactor and the California-based Christensen Fund, which supports many museums. The fund requested that the gallery be named after Michael Sullivan, a British expert on Chinese painting, and his wife, Khoan.

Sullivan was professor of Chinese art at Stanford University in California and now lives in Oxford. He chaired the opening of the scholarly symposium on Oct. 12.

Vainker lived in China for two years, polishing her language skills and studying art and architecture at Nanjing University. She was at the British Museum's Oriental Antiquities department before joining the Ashmolean.

One of the first things visitors will see is a work commissioned by the gallery.

"To welcome visitors to our new gallery we have commissioned the calligrapher Shu Chuanxi of Hangzhou to write something in Chinese that we can display," the curator said.

"He hasn't visited Oxford but we sent him a lot of material about the city and he has chosen the words, 'autumn water.' I expect he will tell us what exactly inspired him to think of that."