Comprised of approximately 500 works of art spanning the Neolithic period to the present day, this exhibition—the first major museum presentation that unites traditional and Modern Chinese art─explores themes of innovation and transformation in a wide variety of mediums. The works, many of which have never been seen outside China, have been brought together from over 50 lenders in 17 provinces in China to create an exhibition of unprecedented scope and magnitude.
The traditional section of the exhibition features important recent archaeological discoveries, masterworks of landscape painting, rare religious sculpture, and finely wrought luxury goods. The section devoted to the second half of the 20th-century offers the first systematic exploration of Modern Chinese art.
The traditional section of this exhibition was curated by Sherman Lee, retired director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and a world-renowned authority on Chinese art, with Howard Rogers acting as consulting curator. The works, which have been selected for their aesthetic merit, illustrate themes of innovation and transformation in seven major areas of artistic production: jade, bronze, tomb ceramics, stoneware and porcelain, sculpture, painting, and calligraphy; a few select examples of lacquer and textiles are also on display. Evident throughout are two tendencies: conceptual innovation, which led artists to shift focus over time from the supernatural to the human and, finally, to the natural world; and technological invention, which occurred as artists sought the most appropriate medium in which to give form to their conceptions.
The Modern section of the exhibition, curated by Julia F. Andrews, a scholar of 20th-century Chinese art and professor at Ohio State University, and Kuiyi Shen, also of Ohio State University, explores the ways in which Chinese artists since 1850 have defined modernity and their own tradition against the complex background of China's history: its urban industrialization; conquest by foreign powers; civil wars; changing governments; and, finally, in recent years, its slow but steady opening to the international community. Investigating the most compelling of the multiple realities that Chinese artists have constructed for themselves, the exhibition considers the degree to which Chinese artists have chosen to adopt Western conventions and the degree to which they have rejected them. Organized chronologically into four sections ("Innovations in Chinese Painting, 1850-1950," "The Modernist Generations, 1920-50", "Art for New China, 1950-80", "Transformations of Tradition, 1980 to the Present"), the modern presentation is comprised of oil paintings, graphic design, woodblock prints, and guohua (ink and color paintings in a traditional style).
Vast generalizations may be necessary to make immediately apparent the main artistic achievements of the long-lived Chinese culture. However, such simplification—which risks obscuring significant regional variations, homogenizing the culture, and merging its periods of creativity and stagnation into an undifferentiated time line─could contribute to an erroneous popular perception of a China that has been unchanging, as though fixed in time, with little chronological evolution. China: 5,000 Years seeks to deconstruct a unitary image by highlighting examples of particularly intense creative innovation during the great eras of Chinese art. This comprehensive and richly varied selection of works demonstrates artistic diversity rather than unity in Chinese art and points toward the future potential of Chinese artists as they confront a variety of new and complex issues at the cusp of the 21st century.
China: 5,000 Years was organized by the Guggenheim Museum in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China and the National Administration for Cultural Heritage of the People's Republic of China, China International Exhibition Agency and Art Exhibitions China.
Jane De Bevoise with Julia F. Andrews and Howard Rogers