Chi­nese em­press put in new light: arts pa­tron

Newly opened ex­hibit tri­umph of per­sis­tence

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - THE WEST - By John Rogers

SANTA ANA, Calif. — For more than a cen­tury, she has been known as the woman be­hind the throne, the em­press who through skill and cir­cum­stance rose from lowly im­pe­rial con­sort to iron-fisted ruler of China when women were be­lieved to have no power at all.

But it turns out that Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi was much more than that. The 19th-cen­tury ruler, who con­sol­i­dated au­thor­ity through po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver­ing that at times in­cluded in­car­cer­a­tion and as­sas­si­na­tion, was also a se­ri­ous arts pa­tron and even an artist her­self, with dis­cern­ing tastes that helped set the style for tra­di­tional Asian art for more than a cen­tury.

That side of Cixi comes to the Western world for the first time with Sun­day’s un­veil­ing of “Em­press Dowa­ger, Cixi: Se­lec­tions From the Sum­mer Palace” at the Bow­ers Mu­seum in Santa Ana. The wide-rang­ing col­lec­tion, never be­fore seen out­side China, will re­main at the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia mu­seum through March 11 be­fore re­turn­ing to Bei­jing.

Con­sist­ing of more than 100 pieces from the lav­ish Bei­jing palace Cixi called home dur­ing the fi­nal years of her life, “Em­press Dowa­ger” in­cludes nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of in­tri­cately de­signed Chi­nese fur­ni­ture, porce­lain vases and stone carv­ings as well as sev­eral pieces of Western art, rare in China at the time, that she also col­lected.

Other Western ac­cou­trements in­clude an Amer­i­can-built lux­ury au­to­mo­bile. The 1901 Duryea tour­ing car is be­lieved to be the first au­to­mo­bile im­ported into China.

“We al­ready have a lot of schol­ar­ship on who she is and how she ruled China. But this show brings you a dif­fer­ent an­gle,” said ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tor Ying-Chen Peng. “This ex­hi­bi­tion seeks to in­tro­duce you to this woman as an arts pa­tron, as an ar­chi­tect, as a de­signer.”

That’s an ap­proach that may fi­nally have got­ten it to the Western world. Anne Shih, who chairs the mu­seum’s board of di­rec­tors, noted re­cently that she spent 10 years try­ing to per­suade the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to lend Cixi’s art.

How­ever, Shih says the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment ini­tially turned her down re­peat­edly. Of­fi­cials told her the em­press was just too con­tro­ver­sial. She’s been por­trayed in nu­mer­ous films and books and not al­ways pos­i­tively.

Shih fi­nally pre­vailed, how­ever, when she em­pha­sized that this show would fo­cus on art, not pol­i­tics.

Al­though it does, it still be­comes ap­par­ent to vis­i­tors what a for­mi­da­ble pres­ence Cixi must have been as they en­ter a re-cre­ation of her throne room to be greeted by a larger-than-life por­trait of her cov­ered in jew­els and ra­zor-sharp fin­ger­nail pro­tec­tors as she glares omi­nously at her au­di­ence.

Nearby, how­ever, are ob­jects that quickly make her pas­sion for art clear. Prom­i­nent among them is a tow­er­ing cal­lig­ra­phy work of black ink em­bossed on a sheet of pa­per that, stretch­ing to about 6 feet is taller than the dowa­ger was.

Her real artis­tic skill, how­ever, lay not in mak­ing art but in en­vi­sion­ing works that would stand the crit­i­cal test of time and then find­ing skilled ar­ti­sans to cre­ate them.

Chris Carl­son The As­so­ci­ated Press

A 1901 Duryea Sur­rey in the ex­hi­bi­tion “Em­press Dowa­ger, Cixi” at Or­ange County’s Bow­ers Mu­seum. The ex­hibit fo­cuses on Cixi, the mys­te­ri­ous woman who ruled China with an iron fist from the mid-1800s un­til her death in 1908.

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