Friday, 1 November 2013

Travels with Li Dongni - Sichuan Provincial Museum, Chengdu, China (September 2013)

Its rather odd that, despite blogging about a few different Chinese museums I've visited, I've never yet posted anything about one of the many visits I've made to my favourite one - the Jinsha Site Museum in Chengdu.  Of course, if you've read the title of this post, you might have realised that this post isn't about that museum either! One day, folks, I promise I will...

Most Chinese provincial capitals seem to contain a museum telling the story of their wider province and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is no exception.  Of course, with a population of over 80 million people, its rather a large area to cover in one museum so the approach is to look at things by large 'subject' halls rather than by trying to tell a chronological story. Architecturally the museum ticks all the boxes of the modern Chinese museum design book.  A large, clean stone and glass building with a sweeping roofline, inside which is a large central atrium with circular walkways on each floor, and exhibition halls projecting off symmetrically.

Before heading inside the museum, though, something definitely caught my eye outside - a large lorry.  Although I initially wondered why on earth someone had been allowed to park a lorry right outside the front door, all soon became clear.  In a great example of how progressive Chinese museums can be, and clearly in response to the question of how you relate to a province-wide audience, the lorry is in fact a wonderfully branded mobile museum.  The design of the lorry was particularly good, with expanding sides to create a walkway when parked.  Sadly, it was locked up and I couldn't get inside to see what stories were being told, how the objects were being secured and indeed what the object selection had been from a security and environment point of view.

Inside the museum the displays are divided into a number of halls, which I'll now explore one at a time:

Gallery of Bronze ware

This gallery examines bronzework (mainly in the form of vessels and weaponry) from the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties.  The galleries contain a minimal number of objects, displayed in well lit cases and with small but neat and bilingual object labels.  As seems normal for Chinese museums, there is no visible environmental monitoring within cases.  The quality of the objects is first rate, however, and there are some neat display solutions such as the use of magnifying glasses and mirrors to see both sides of seals.

Gallery of Ceramics

Just like it says on the tin, this gallery looks at the development of ceramics in the province, mainly in the Han and Song dynasties.  The focus is very much on the more unusual and decorative vessels and tomb figurines here, rather than the everyday vessels used by the majority of people.  There is a nice section on changing kiln technology, however, that most Chinese museums would ignore entirely.

Zhang Daqian's Art Gallery

The most unusual gallery in the museum is one dedicated to the works of a single artist.  Zhang Daqian (1899 - 1983) comes across as something of an eccentric character.  He was a Buddhist monk in his early life, but would later move abroad and exhibited his paintings in New York in the 1950s.  Of particular interest, though, is his time spent recording the Buddhist frescoes in the caves at Dunhuang in the 1940s.  These frescoes were damaged and stolen before and after then, and his paintings serve as a valuable historic record alongside being works of art.  His work is much more varied than that, however, as the images below show.  One thing I liked was the quote that he buried all of his used brushes in his garden as he formed an attachment with them.  He even erected a monument to his 'tomb of brushes'!

Gallery of Tibetan Buddhism

Given that Sichuan borders Tibet, and many thousands of people of Tibetan ethnicity live well within the boundaries of Sichuan, it is understandable that a gallery is dedicated to Buddhist art.  Despite the wealth of interesting objects, sadly I think this is one gallery that underwhelms, as it doesn't really attempt to provide a deeper understanding of Buddhism.  Also, not at all surprising in a Chinese museum, social issues are avoided at all costs...

Gallery of Sichuan Crafts

This mixed gallery definitely contains everything that wouldn't fit in any other gallery!  A strange but fascinating mix of glassware, rhino horn cups, bamboo carvings, shadow puppets and embroidery is displayed, some of which are fascinating in their scale, and some of the bamboo carving in particular is of wonderful quality and detail.

Pottery and Stone Carvings Gallery of Han Dynasty in Sichuan

This ponderously-titled gallery does at least let you know what's contained within - a selection of ceramic tomb models and stone carvings from the Han Dynasty.  I confess I was starting to get gallery fatigue by this point, but some of the ceramic tiles were fun, and displayed nicely with rubbings so the design could be better seen.  Look out for the one with the voyeur enjoying himself behind a tree - that one would even make the Romans blush!

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