Art News

The National Museum of China Reopens with "The Art of the Enlightenment"

artwork: Gottlieb Schick - portrait "der Heinrike Dannecker", 1802 on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing. The "Art of Enlightenment" collaboratively organized by the National Museum of China and German's Museums showcasing comprehensive range of visual artworks spanning more than 300 years. The exhibition opened to public on April 2, 2011. - AP Photo / Andy Wong.

BEIJING.- Liu Yandong, State Councillor of Culture of the People’s Republic of China and Guido Westerwelle, Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany, opened ‘The Art of the Enlightenment’ exhibition at the National Museum of China. The exhibition, jointly organized by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen Munich, together with the National Museum of China, is the first international exhibition to be hosted at the venue after its refurbishment and spectacular expansion. Falling under the joint auspices of Chinese President Hu Jintao and the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Christian Wulff, the exhibition will be on show at the National Museum of China for twelve months, from 2 April 2011 to 31 March 2012.

The Exhibition’s Chapters
The prologue, ‘Court Life in the Age of the Enlightenment’, invites visitors to explore the world of Baroque palaces and the enlightened nobility and depicts all facets of court art from the 18th century. The palaces of Berlin, Dresden and Munich, whose collections went on to form the basis of the three museum bodies participating in today’s show, are presented as examples for the court art of Europe as a whole. The periods depicted range from the late absolutist monarchy up to Frederick the Great, the first enlightened ruler to occupy a German throne.

The ‘Perspectives of Knowledge’ chapter tells of the birth of modern sciences and their immense influence on the arts. Knowledge was acquired, systematized and disseminated publicly from all areas of learning; knowledge gained social prestige to a degree unheard of before. Not only had knowledge become fashionable, it was now a worthy subject for art in its own right.

The ‘Birth of History’ highlights the new historical consciousness in the 18th century. The age saw the rise of such scholarly disciplines as archaeology and the founding of the first public museums. In the arts, the enthusiasm for antiquity was expressed in all manner of ways, seen, for example, in the sudden zeal for architectural ruins or the Neoclassicism of the age. However, a concern with the past also brought with it a heightened sense of the value of the here and now.

artwork: National Museum of China was one of ten famous architectures built in 1959 to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Opened to the public in 1961. The building has a rectangular exterior and faces the Great Hall of the People. Twenty-four square pillars make up the magnificent west gate portico. The whole building is an important part of the panorama of Tian'anmen Square.

The chapter ‘Far and Near’, turns our attention to the eagerness in the Enlightenment to investigate beyond the immediate sphere, the fascination in distant epochs and cultures, as well as their subsequent aesthetic impact on European art. Numerous expeditions, documented by artists taken along on the voyage, allowed new discoveries to be made on foreign peoples, animals and plants. China was one of the age’s exotic idealized worlds and for many artists, writers and philosophers right up to the late 18th century it was the projection of an ideal, enlightened state that served as a counterpoint to Europe. However, the focus at the time was not merely placed on distant lands; people’s immediate surroundings were also deemed a valid place of discovery. The example of the Sächsische Schweiz, or the ‘Switzerland of Saxony’, illustrates the invention of tourism and art’s role in the early marketing of one such region.

The chapter ‘Love and Sensibility’ illustrates how the 18th century also developed into the ‘Age of Sensibility’. The socially critical and emancipatory tendencies of the age were complemented by the virtue of feeling. Even before it became firmly rooted as a concept, empathy evolved into a cultural technique that set new standards for humane coexistence between citizens. The way marriage and family were perceived changed and increasingly became defined by the concept of love as the base for relationships. This new image of the family was propagated in paintings, drawings and prints and craft objects. Friendship between like-minded people became the subject of art, be it in paintings, commemorative albums or decorative art objects.

In the chapter ‘Back to Nature’ Arcadian landscapes, idylls and flights of imagination in 18th century sculpted gardens bring to life the Enlightenment’s great dream of a new society. Rousseau’s postulation ‘back to nature’ applied to humankind’s nature and had a sweeping impact on the educational ideals and moral perceptions of the time. The recognition that, despite many technical achievements, nature remained indomitable was reflected in countless pictures of natural disasters (volcanic eruptions, storm scenes) and formed an important part in the development of one of the most fundamental philosophical ideas: the aesthetic of the sublime.

artwork: Arnold Böcklin - In the Play of the Waves ( Im Spiel der Wellen ), 1883 Courtesy of Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen Munich, Neue Pinakothek.

‘Shadows’ lifts the veil on the Enlightenment’s interest in the human psyche and its emotional depths. The dark, irrational side to our being is depicted here in numerous drawings and prints, such as Goya’s ‘Caprichos’, and appears as the reverse to the enlightened, intelligible world guided by reason. The loss of the kind of social and natural hierarchies traditionally propagated by the church and the emphasis on the self-responsibility of the individual also gave rise to uncertainty and fears.

The chapter on ‘Emancipation and the Public Sphere’ depicts the Enlightenment as the epoch that spawned a kind of public sphere in which the individual was actively involved. The principal medium in the Enlightenment was initially the word; political and cultural topics were increasingly rapidly disseminated in a flood of books, periodicals, pamphlets and plays. However, like the word, the image also underwent a change in function, not least thanks to the opportunities that advances in technology opened up, and it developed into a visual mass medium that served the fervent dissemination of knowledge in the form of booklets, caricatures and popular literature.