Chinese empress put in new light: arts patron
Newly opened exhibit triumph of persistence
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.
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.