The Golden Age of Chinese Art


The 1930s were not a time most people would think to be a Golden Age. The images of this period in America are not particularly inspiring due to the Great Depression and every thing that went with its economic woes. However, the art of China did experience a sharp rise in demand during this very time period. It seems hard to believe today. Interest in Chinese art had been growing at a steady pace for some time by the 1930s. At the noteworthy Freer Gallery of Art the arrival of Chinese works was the culmination of C.T. Loo’s unique business. The size and quality of the gallery’s Chinese collection grew in number at this same time. It is a fact that the acquisitions made during this difficult economic era were higher in value than those of the decade before or after. The “Golden Age” for Chinese art had come upon the American and international scene!

Back in the 1930s the Freer Gallery of Art concentrated on metal works (23 pieces in all). It also acquired jade (49 pieces) and paintings (23 pieces). The gallery spent more than $249,950 on Chinese acquisitions specifically. As the decade progressed the gallery’s Chinese artworks reached three new heights: $249,950 in 1930, $176,850 in 1935, and $160,550 in 1939. In addition to these purchases, Chinese art research at the gallery was increased. Structurally speaking, the gallery’s installation changes gave the eastern wing of the gallery building over to the exclusive exhibition of the art from China.

In the mid to late 1930s, the growth of the Chinese art related activity at the Freer was simply a part of a much larger picture. It is true that in the United States interest in Chinese artworks was spreading to regional and newly established museums. Some of these places included the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Nelson Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and the City Art Museum of St. Louis. During this time, the study of Chinese art and its civilization became more widespread than ever before. The consideration of the culture of China had become a subject for deeper, academic contemplation. In fact, a new generation of American scholars and curators had emerged to give China a closer look. One such person was Archibald G. Wenley (1898-1962). He was the first American curator seriously trained in the Chinese language and its culture.

A short review of the new activity back in China also seems to be necessary. In China at this time, the antique business continued to prosper. In the mid thirties the antique trades of Shanghai reached their pinnacle of success. Interesting to note is the fact that there were about 210 antique shops in the community along the Guangdong Road. The government of China had begun to devote more attention to the cultural heritage of the nation. One event which bloomed from the antique business was the government sponsored excavation at Anyang. The excavation continued until the year 1937. This excavation yielded some of the most incredible findings. Therefore, to promote the glory which rightfully belonged to China and its civilization the government sent a great number of art and archeological pieces to London. These pieces became a part of the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the famous Royal Academy in 1935 and 1936. This landmark exhibition included more than three thousand artworks from some two hundred lenders all over the world. So the evidence for the international fever over Chinese art was very transparent.

Such a shift toward Chinese art at a time as unlikely as the 1930s does seem hard to comprehend today as one looks back on history. The seeds of interest were indeed sown across the United State prior to this decade. The timing of their bloom might appear to be odd. Even so, the thoughtful student of this period should be reminded that such trends are often the result of several cultural and economic forces in play at the same time. Chinese culture, along with the influx of Chinese people to America, had been going on for quite some time. There was a definite shift in the thinking of academics toward the Middle Kingdom already taking place. Chinese art in America had simply of age. In truth, there was no stopping these events by the time this Golden Age arrived!

Source by Harlan Urwiler

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