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Arts

European Enlightenment art shines on Beijing stage

Touted as a 'sensational' event, the National Museum of China is showing the largest German exhibition export ever: artworks of the European Enlightenment that reveal revolutionary ideas. But where are the politics?

One work on show: Caspar David Friedrich's Dolmen in the Snow (1807)

One work on show: Caspar David Friedrich's "Dolmen in the Snow"

"Who would have thought a decade ago that something like this would be possible?" Michael Eissenhauer asks with a hint of pride. The director of the Berlin State Museums radiates both exuberance and confidence when he talks about the major exhibition in Beijing that opens on April 2.

His museums, along with the Dresden State Art Collections and the Bavarian State Pictures Collections, have joined forces with the National Museum of China to show major artworks reflecting the Age of Enlightment during the 18th century.

"It's a sensation that Germany's three largest museum bodies have been working together so closely over so many years," commented Eissenhauer, who's traveled back and forth between Berlin and Beijing countless times.

Michael Eissenhauer

Michael Eissenhauer sees the exhibition as groundbreaking

Also groundbreaking is that this is the first international exhibition to open following the extensive renovation and expansion of the National Museum of China, now making it one of the largest art institutions in the world.

German-Chinese collaboration went a step further, with designs for the refurbishment created by renowned Hamburg-based architectural firm Gerkan, Marg and Partners.

The development of thought

The Enlightenment period in Western philosophy, art and science heralded logic and reason as the basis for the emancipation of the human mind and, as German philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, reflected "mankind's coming of age." Against this background, the exhibition offers plenty of potential for reflecting on current political issues.

Yet Eissenhauer makes one thing clear about the show: "It's not our task to address politics," he stressed.

He prefers instead to focus on working closely with his Chinese colleagues. "Our museum considers itself to be a kind of universal art institution since we collect works by people around the world through all the ages," the director said.

Entertainment in the Open Air by Antoine Watteau (1721)

"Entertainment in the Open Air" by Antoine Watteau (1721)

It was not a political decision to cooperate with China, he added.

Art in context

Still, how can the art of the Enlightenment be shown in a politics-free zone? Intellectuals in Beijing routinely discuss the European Enlightenment and its notion of universal values that laid the groundwork for a definition of basic human rights.

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to imprisoned Chinese author Liu Xiaobo in 2010 invigorated the discussion on freedom of speech, both in China and around the world.

Recent revolutions in North Africa have prompted further international discourse on freedom and politics, and inspired Chinese dissidents' in their plans for protests. But the Chinese authorities managed to quell them with the largest police action since the Olympics Games in Beijing in 2008. Foreign journalists were kept in custody for hours.

The Art of the Enlightenment exhibition, however, has escaped pressure from Chinese authorities, Eissenhauer said. "There has not been one thing - from the selection of the artworks to the printing of the catalog texts - that has been deemed unacceptable by the Chinese," he noted.

Gottlieb Schick's portrait of Heinrike Dannecker, 1802

Gottlieb Schick's portrait of Heinrike Dannecker, 1802

Yet, the Age of Enlightenment wouldn't have been what it was without its questioning of the world. The German Federal Foreign Office, a co-sponsor, did acknowledge a political dimension to the show.

Politics and understanding

"Kant translated the 'Sapere aude' maxim of [Roman] poet Horace as 'Have courage to use your own understanding,'" Werner Wnendt, head of the Directorate-General for Culture and Communication at the Federal Foreign Office, said last year. "This motto of the Enlightenment calls for politics to take this seriously and to allow the use of reasoning."

Over 600 works of painting, sculpture, drawing and prints will be on show until March 31, 2012, and will include masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich, Francisco José de Goya, Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, to name a few.

The artworks are grouped into nine sections to reflect core themes of Enlightenment art, including: Court Life in the Age of the Enlightenment, Perspectives of Knowledge, The Birth of History, Far and Near, Love and Sensibility, Back to Nature, Shadows, Emancipation and the Public Sphere, and The Revolution of Art.

Architectural draft of the National Museum of China by Gerkan, Marg and Partners

Architectural draft of the National Museum of China by Gerkan, Marg and Partners

Author: Aya Bach / als
Editor: Kate Bowen

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