Rare art from China’s 19th cen­tury woman ruler come to U.S.

The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY) - - Kickoff -

SANTAANA » 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 iron­fisted ruler of China at a time and in a place when women were be­lieved to have no power at all.

But it turns out 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.” 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. Among them are a large oil-on-canvas por­trait of her­self she com­mis­sioned the promi­nent Dutch artist Hu­bert Vos to create.

Other West­ern ac­cou­trements in­clude gifts from vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries, among them Bri­tish sil­ver serv­ing sets, Ger­man and Swiss clocks, a mar­ble-topped ta­ble from Italy with in­laid stones in the shape of a chess­board and even an Amer­i­can­built lux­ury au­to­mo­bile. The lat­ter, a 1901 Duryea tour­ing car, is be­lieved to be the first au­to­mo­bile im- ported into China and as such may have in­volved the em­press in the coun­try’s first au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent when her driver is said to have hit a pedes­trian.

“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, as she led a re­cent pre- open­ing tour of it through the mu­seum that was kicked off by a rau­cous per­for­mance of Chi­nese lion dancers ac­com­pa­nied by mu­si­cians loudly bang­ing gongs cym­bals and drums.

“This ex­hi­bi­tion seeks to in­tro­duce you to this woman as an arts pa­tron, as an ar­chi­tect, as a de­signer,” the Amer­i­can Univer­sity art his­to­rian said.

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.

The Bow­ers, tucked away in the Los Angeles sub­urb of Santa Ana, has built an im­pres­sive in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion over the years by host­ing ex­hi­bi­tions of price­less, his­tor­i­cal, of­ten larger-than-life art­works from Ti­bet, the Silk Road, the tomb of China’s first em­peror and other historic sites.


The Re­cep­tion Throne Set is shown in the ex­hi­bi­tion “Ex­press Dowa­ger, Cixi.” at Or­ange County’s Bow­ers Mu­seum, Thurs­day in Santa Ana, Calif.

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