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The Empress Impresses

Artworks from the collection of the Empress Dowager Cixi come to the Bowers Museum, shedding light on the interaction of taste and power in the twilight of Imperial China.

Tablet in the shape of a bat

Tablet in the shape of a bat, late 19th century, wood, 22 x 43 x 5.5 in., with calligraphy reading, “Moving and directing wind from all directions.”

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Connoisseurship, a millennia-old tradition in China, was generally the purview of men, and the leader of the collecting community was the Emperor himself. But one hugely powerful Chinese woman achieved distinction in the field, as well as in the field of power politics—Cixi, known as the Empress Dowager. Her lifespan, 1835–1908, coincides with the death throes of Imperial China, for she was succeeded by a two-year-old boy who was deposed by Republican forces by the time he was six, which ended not only the Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty but 3,500 years of dynastic rule.

Now, as China rediscovers the past that the Communist government long rejected, a major trove of art and design objects from the Empress Dowager’s collection, housed in the Summer Palace Museum in Beijing, is coming to the U.S. “Empress Dowager Cixi: Selections from the Summer Palace” opened at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., on November 12 and will be on view through March 11, 2018, presenting over 100 objects that have never before been seen outside the palace.

Cixi, a member of the Manchu nobility, started her career as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor, to whom she bore a son in 1856. When the emperor died at the age of 30 in 1861, the boy became the Tongzhi Emperor, and Cixi achieved a new level of power as the emperor’s mother and regent. When Tongzhi died of smallpox at 18 in 1875, Cixi made sure that her nephew became emperor; he ruled under the name of Guangxu until his death in 1908. Playing the game of court politics with a sure instinct, Cixi was essentially the power behind the throne for over 40 years.

During this time, Western powers became increasingly involved in Chinese affairs, notably during the Second Opium War of 1860 and in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901. The Empress Dowager was very friendly with English, French, and American diplomats in China (and their wives, who were often involved in the arts), and her collecting taste was influenced by Western culture, without being unmoored from its grounding in classical Chinese aesthetic doctrines.

Victoria Gerard, Curator of Collections and Special Exhibitions, curated the show along with Ying-chen Peng, professor of art history at American University in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the Empress Dowager. Gerard says, “We wanted to show the Empress Dowager’s influence beyond the official aspects of her reign. No one had really written about or explored her collecting tastes. This is not only the international debut of this collection, but of the Empress Dowager herself from this perspective.”

Many of the works on view at the Bowers bear symbolism that was personal to the Empress and reflected her concerns. Longevity was a perennial obsession of hers; she adopted a special diet to promote health and long life. “Ying-chen and I call longevity the key word of the exhibition,” says Gerard. Among the Chinese images that connote longevity are bats and peaches, and both can be found in profusion on objects that were made for the Empress Dowager—what Gerard calls “an auspicious universe of decoration for longevity.” For example, a yellow porcelain set made for her 60th birthday (though not actually used until her 70th because of the First Sino-Japanese War, which pre-empted her 60th-birthday celebrations) features swarms of flying bats as well as the Chinese character for longevity (shou). The grinning head of a bat also appears at the bottom of a calligraphic tablet, on view in the exhibition.

The Empress Dowager was herself a serious calligrapher. Four pieces of calligraphy attributed to her are in the show; two of those Peng considers autograph works, and the other two “ghost-painted” on behalf of the Empress. One of the autograph works is a large and impressive panel of the character for longevity, with bats in the background. “The scholar elite was traditionally male,” says Gerard. “The fact that she created an oversize beautiful piece of calligraphy with that character tells the story of someone who wants to use art to substantiate herself as ruler.”

Visitors to the exhibition will notice that there are quite a few objects that look Western, such as clocks with rococo design, a telescope, a vanity, and a clock in the shape of a steam locomotive. Some of these were imported from Europe, while others were made in China by European firms that had facilities there. Court officials looking to curry favor with the Empress would give her these kinds of things, knowing of her interest in Western art and technology, and the Guangxu Emperor himself was, as Gerard puts it, “obsessed by clocks.”

Another Western artwork represented in the exhibition is a large oil portrait of the Empress Dowager by the Dutch-born artist Hubert Vos, executed after 1902. The Empress was acutely conscious of her public image and controlled it accordingly. The first Chinese ruler to be photographed, she had her photographs carefully retouched before sending them out to foreign dignitaries. Gerard says that the way Vos depicted the Empress in this regal, opulent painting was “influenced by her ideas,” although she ended up keeping the picture private.

One really remarkable piece of Western technology in the show is a 1901 Duryea motorcar made in Reading, Pa., that belonged to the Empress Dowager. A birthday gift from one of her generals, it is believed to have been custom-made for her and to be the first car ever exported to China. Gerard relates the story of a Chinese chauffeur who was so nervous about driving for the Empress Dowager that he got drunk first and then crashed the car, after which it was never driven again. In any case, the present exhibition marks its first outing from the Summer Palace since 1901.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2017

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