Cleveland museum curator leaves legacy of Chinese exhibits
Noelle Giuffrida, a research associate and an affiliate faculty member at the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Kansas, gave a lecture on Tuesday about the curation and study of Chinese art. Giuffrida’s talk, “Episodes in the History of Studying and Exhibiting Chinese Art in Postwar America,” focused on American museum director and curator Sherman E. Lee and how his work contributed to the integration of Chinese art into the American art scene. The event was sponsored by the University’s Fine Arts Department.
According to Giuffrida, after World War II, Chinese art became more prominent in American galleries, in part because British, French and German museums and collectors did not have much money after the war to buy it. Lee was largely responsible for bringing Chinese art to American audiences during this time. “Through his collecting, exhibitions [and] writings, Lee achieved legendary stature in the field of Asian art during the second half of the 20th century,” Giuffrida said.
Lee became a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1952, according to Giuffrida. In 1954, Lee installed a Chinese landscape painting exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art in an effort to make Chinese art more prominent in American museums. “He intended for this exhibition to raise the profile of Chinese paintings and earn them greater acceptance among American audiences,” Giuffrida said.
The exhibit’s focus on landscapes was significant, too, Giuffrida explained. “Rather than showcasing a combination of media from China across millennia, … this show signaled that Chinese landscape painting was, in and of itself, an important style worthy of a dedicated exhibition,” she said.
Lee’s insight wasn’t just limited to his curatorship, Giuffrida explained. Other high-profile art curators and collectors of the time, including John Pope and Osvald Sirén, approached connoisseurship with sinology, the study of Chinese customs, politics, history and language. In contrast, Lee emphasized a hands-on study of Chinese art and used a visuals-oriented, hands-on approach to connoisseurship. This required the curator to spend a lot of time with the art before making calls about its dating and artist. Lee believed his contemporaries’ approach focused too much on text and not enough on the art itself.
Giuffrida shared an anecdote about how Lee was able to discern a copy of a Chinese scroll painting from the original. She first showed a photo of the copy, “Buddhist Temples Amid Autumn Mountains,” followed by the original, “Streams and Mountains Without End.” The copy, created by an unknown artist, was done in either the Yuan or Ming Dynasties (1272-1644), according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website. According to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s website, the original was done in the late Northern Song or Jin Dynasties (960-1234) by Zhao Zuo. While these two paintings are far from identical, an expert eye was necessary to deem which came first.
Giuffrida said that despite the extensive text, dating and other information found in the “Buddhist Temples Amid Autumn Mountains” scroll, Lee realized it was a copy by looking at the visuals rather than the documentation found on the scroll. Giuffrida explained that, as Lee saw it, with an original landscape, you should be able to “travel through the painting with your eyes.” He could tell from spending time with the paintings that “Buddhist Temples Amid Autumn Mountains” was done later than “Streams and Mountains Without End,” she said.
Giuffrida used these two paintings as an example of Lee’s belief that pictorial connoisseurship is more useful than textual sinology for identifying original Chinese paintings. “For him, external evidence supplied negative information,” she said. According to Giuffrida, “Lee characterized internal evidence as more positive and subject to interpretation, based on knowledge of style.” His view of external evidence, however, was that it required more technical skills, such as knowledge of the Chinese language or use of a microscope.
According to Giuffrida, Lee sought to “de-exoticize” and instead “embrace” Chinese art. One way that Lee attempted to do this was by juxtaposing pieces from China with American pieces that had similar shapes and colors. Giuffrida explained that while this method of displaying art is slightly more common now than at the time, Lee’s particular approach is still considered unique.
Lee became director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1958, where he remained until his retirement in 1983. His collection and curation of Chinese art ultimately advanced and expanded the field of Chinese art history in America, Giuffrida said.
She shared a quote from Lee: “We are not Chinese, nor ever can be, but we can discipline ourselves to understand something of the country’s approach to her own painting.”