A major exhibition of masterworks from the world-renowned collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, will be on view at the National Museum of China in Beijing from February 1 through May 9, 2013. The exhibition, Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art – Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, explores the grand theme of nature as it has been depicted by painters, sculptors, and decorative artists in Europe, America, and the Near East, from antiquity to the present day. The 130 works of art are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum’s vast encyclopedic holdings, and they are masterful representations of landscape, flora, and fauna rendered in a wide range of media including painting, ceramics, tapestry, silver, stone, and bronze. Highlights include works by such major artists as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, Tiffany, Hopper, and Atget, as well as anonymous masters from the ancient and medieval worlds.
Thomas P. Campbell, the Metropolitan Museum’s Director and CEO, stated: “Never before has an exhibition of this scope and theme, drawn entirely from the Met’s holdings, traveled to China. We are pleased that this wonderful collaboration—a milestone in the cultural exchange between China and the United States—is taking place at the National Museum of China, one of the great museums of China and one of the leading cultural attractions in the world. The works of art in Earth, Sea, and Sky will not only acquaint the Chinese public with these masterpieces first-hand, but will also introduce them to the breadth and quality of the Met’s collections.”
Mr. Lv Zhangshen, President of the National Museum of China, stated, “This exhibition marks another milestone of international collaboration for the National Museum of China after the completion of the new museum building, following the success of the Art of the Enlightenment exhibition in cooperation with the three major national museums in Germany; Passion for Porcelain: Masterpieces of Ceramics from the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum; and Renaissance in Florence: Masterpieces and Protagonists in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities. It is also the very first time that The Metropolitan Museum of Art is showcasing its masterpieces in China. It is expected that the number of works and the academic depth of this exhibition will have a sensational effect. In the past, Chinese audiences have been able to learn about these great art pieces through publications; but now they will be able to experience and appreciate the charm of these original works in China. Clearly, this exhibition will have great significance in promoting cultural communication and the popularization of art.
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with The Yomiuri Shimbun and The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
The works of art on view, which date from the third millennium B.C. to the 20th century, are organized thematically in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, in order to bring out engaging and informative juxtapositions. The sections are: Nature Idealized, The Human Presence in Nature, Animals, Flowers and Gardens, Nature in the Camera Lens, Earth and Sky, and Watery World.
Nature Idealized presents visions of nature inspired by ideas, literary sources, and abstract notions. This section includes Arcadian landscapes that are shaped as much by ideals of a golden classical past as by the world before the artists’ eyes. Some of artists personified aspects of nature, representing them with the human form. The great artist Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606–1669) depicted Flora, the goddess of springtime, flowers, and love, in his eponymous painting of 1654, using his beloved deceased wife Saskia as his model.
In The Human Presence in Nature, landscape is the setting for the lives people live and the stories they tell. The natural environment is inhabited by men and women, and is shaped by farming and hunting. An ancient Egyptian stone relief of grain (ca. 1349–1336 B.C) speaks eloquently to human agriculture and the staff of life. A medieval tapestry (1500–1530) weaves a colorful story of love among peasant shepherds. And a painting by Renoir (French, 1841–1919) celebrates the sparkling sea and two ladies at leisure in Figures on the Beach.
The creatures on view in the third section, Animals, span the full chronological and geographic breadth of the exhibition. From the bronze head of a bull from ancient Mesopotamia (ca. 2600–2350 B.C.) to a sleek marble polar bear from the 20th century, these beasts speak to the close relationships between humans and the other creatures that inhabit their world. Known in the West as the King of Beasts, the lion is featured in many of the works in the exhibition, including an aquamanile (water vessel) and a military helmet, both from the 15th century.
A garden is nature shaped by human hands. In the section Flowers and Gardens, we see the way artists have celebrated the pure beauty of nature. Two very different glass vases by Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848–1933) exemplify the way artists are inspired by flowers and yet transform them in the course of their creative process.
Nature in the Camera Lens differs from all of the other sections of the exhibition in its focus on a single medium, photography. In this one technological form all the themes of the exhibition are recapitulated, from idealized landscapes to flowers and animals. The final image in this section—a masterwork of the last decade of the 20th century by Hiroshi Sugimoto (Japanese, born 1948)—reduces nature to its most elemental: a simple horizon marking sea and sky.
The sixth section, Earth and Sky, focuses on landscape, especially images of trees, mountains, and sky. Here, differing artistic conceptions of landscape—some grandiose, some intimate—are shown. A highlight is Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890); it is a painterly, turbulent representation of a tree in Provence that he observed to be “as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk.”
The final section, Watery World, focuses on seascapes, waterfalls, rivers, and other bodies of water, along with depictions of fish and other animals that live in liquid environments. One such creature is the octopus, seen stretching his arms around a Mycenaean vessel from between 1200 and 1100 B.C. And in Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851) captures the atmospheric shimmer of water.
The exhibition Earth, Sea, and Sky includes loans from 12 of the Metropolitan Museum’s 17 curatorial departments. Because a goal of the exhibition is to present works of art from traditions that may be less familiar to Chinese audiences, loans were selected only from those departments with holdings of art of the Western tradition.