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Art of the Enlightenment

November 30, 2010

Presenting works and ideas from the Enlightenment period, the exhibition unveils the visual world of the western pre-modern era. Despite cultural differences, it is expected to generate great public interest in China.

'The atelier of Madame Vincent' by Marie-Gabrielle Capet, 1808
The exhibition features nearly 600 works by European artists and scientistsImage: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen/Sibylle Forster

One of the world's most significant Enlightenment art exhibitions is due to open at the National Museum of China in the spring of 2011, titled "The Art of the Enlightenment." It comprises nearly 600 exhibits - including paintings, sculptures and even scientific inventions - that originate from the 18th-century western cultural movement which advocated reason as the primary source for legitimacy and authority.

It is to be the first exhibition held at the Beijing museum's newly-renovated and expanded facilities - planned by Hamburg architectural company Gerkan, Marg and Partners. The extension to the museum makes it the largest in the world.

"The Chinese public will appreciate the highly developed painting techniques and the artistic level of German and European artists," commented Huang Zhenchun, the National Museum's deputy director.

The exhibits are sourced from the Berlin State Museums collections, the Dresden State Art Collections and the Bavarian State Picture Collections.

Shaping of a culture

'Dolmen in the snow' by Caspar David Friedrich, 1807
Friedrich's works often reflect Enlightenment philosophyImage: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Jürgen Karpinski

Western art and culture, especially philosophy and science, have been well-received in China. Many works have been translated into Chinese, and to this day political and social debates in China are strongly influenced by western thought. Director of the Berlin State Museums, Michael Eissenhauer, expects the new exhibition to be met with interest.

"We always discover a deep knowledge of literature from this period in our [Chinese] contacts," said Eissenhauer. "But this is less true of visual art."

The exhibition aims to present the works in the context of ideological tradition. For instance, when British painter Henry Fuseli depicts the battle between sin, Satan, and death, it can be seen as a deviation from traditional Christian dogma: The interest in evil represents a new-found freedom.

Likewise, the Romantic-style paintings of German painter Caspar David Friedrich can be interpreted in the context of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's state-of-nature philosophy, according to Klaus Schrenk, director of the Bavarian State Picture Collections.

"Rousseau makes one of the greatest demands on the development of humankind and questions the absolute power of French kings," said Schrenk. Similarly, Friedrich's works also represent mankind's natural right to self-determination, he added.

A discussion program between German and Chinese scholars will help the public understand these parallels better. The German Federal Foreign Office, a co-sponsor, sees a political side of the exhibition.

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

Politics 'not the task of museums'

'Satan and Death with Sin intervening' by Henry Fuseli, 1802
Enlightenment art questions old beliefs traditionsImage: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

The exhibition comes at a time when the values associated with the European Enlightenment are a subject of heated debate. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo has once again attracted international attention to the topic of freedom of speech in China.

One of the core concepts that emerged from the Enlightenment - the idea that certain values are universal - has been intensely discussed in Chinese intellectual circles in recent months.

However, according to Eissenhauer, the art exhibition will not feature any references to current political ideology, which he believes is a matter for the foreign ministry, but "not the task of art museums."

The exhibition was meant to have opened this year, but was postponed due to delays in the museum building project. The works are scheduled to remain in Beijing for 15 months, with no other locations in China involved.

Author: Mathias Boelinger (ew)
Editor: Kate Bowen