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Historic Survey of American Art Goes to China


The first historic survey of American art ever presented in China goes on view in Beijing February 10, the latest example of growing cultural diplomacy and exchange between the United States and China. From VOA's New York Bureau, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau has the details.

The exhibition, "Three Hundred Years of Innovation," traces American art from the Colonial era to the present.

The Guggenheim Foundation in New York and the Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art organized the landmark exhibition to show the United States' cultural and historic development through the eyes of artists. The show is a thank you to the Chinese people for loans made to the Guggenheim Museum's 1998 exhibit showcasing five thousand years of Chinese art.

The show is divided into six historical periods, beginning before the American Revolution and ending with artists' views of the issues of globalization.

Betsy Kennedy is the curator of the collection of the Terra Foundation, which is contributing more than two dozen works to the show. "It tells multiple stories, thousands of stories. I think in one sense it opens other non-Americans up to know a little bit more about who we are and where we come from and perhaps something that adds a layer of understanding to international relationship," she said.

Kennedy says the exhibit also presents a wonderful, and challenging, opportunity to show off American artists to the Chinese public. "The contemporary scene is just jumping over there. But how do you explain the early images of Native Americans, the landscapes of (Albert) Bierstadt and other people going west? I happen to be fond of western art because I think it tell such an interesting part of our story that other cultures are interested in knowing about and it is associated with our mythic cowboy attitude sometimes," she said.

One-hundred twenty American artists are represented, ranging from Gilbert Stuart's series of portraits of George Washington, the first U.S. president, to the photo-based portraits of contemporary artist Chuck Close. Senior curator Susan Davidson of the Guggenheim Museum says the 130 works in the exhibit were culled from museums and private collections across the United States. "We also wanted very much not to show the same 100 pictures that everybody thinks of when they think of American art. We wanted to look at collections that do not normally get seen as often as well as paintings that don't normally get seen but are just as fine and wonderful examples," she said.

Davidson says the exhibit is designed to showcase American artistic diversity, not masterpieces. "There are a number of masterpieces within the show, but it is really intended to tell the history of America through its art. There are very specific examples chosen that punctuate specific events within American history. For example, the exhibition begins with Benjamin West's "Penn's Treaty with the Indians." On a more contemporary vein, it was more important to have Andy Warhol's "Race Riot" picture because it documents short moments in the civil rights movement in this country," she said.

Kennedy says the Chinese public will also see what she calls underappreciated American masters like social realist Thomas Hart Benton, who will be represented by five paintings, part of a series called the American Historical Epic. "What is significant about the particular five paintings, it is a series about intolerance in America. This is in the late 1920s. It is fascinating art. It is so indicative of a troubling time in our lives. I think it will be surprising to an international audience to see an American artist take on themes of injustice not only to Native Americans, but to African Americans, women, religious intolerance. It is an amazing series. And to have all five together, they will look like a mural," she said.

Kennedy says the organizers also tried to be sensitive to the audience. "We were thinking about the Chinese audience and what images would resonate perhaps with them, even looking at Chinese art and how important the horse is in Chinese art and landscape is in Chinese art or having things that they might say, 'Oh, that is like our paintings,' and maybe there is a connection there," she said.

After two months on view at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, the exhibit will travel to the Shanghai Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai until the end of June.

Due to international enthusiasm about the exhibition, officials say the American art survey may travel beyond China.

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