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Good Fortune for These Splendors

The planners of an exhibition of ancient Chinese artifacts at Santa Barbara Museum of Art couldn't have had better timing.

July 19, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

SANTA BARBARA — Arriving in the wake of President Clinton's visit to China, "Eternal China: Splendors From the First Dynasties" which opens Tuesday at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, appears to be a case of perfect timing. Not only has extensive press coverage of the presidential trip heightened interest in all things Chinese, but some of the most striking news photographs of the journey featured Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, walking in an excavated tomb of life-size terra cotta warriors--several examples of which are star attractions in this touring exhibition of ancient Chinese art.

The buried army was created during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and discovered in 1974 on farmlands outside Xian, the ancient capital of China located about 450 miles southwest of Beijing. It is one of the most astounding archeological finds in the entire course of human history, with more than 7,000 sculptures, including 600 horses, excavated to date. A dozen of those pieces--a general, various lower-ranking officers, charioteers, archers, a stableman and a horse--currently occupy a room of their own at the Santa Barbara museum, where they form the dramatic climax of the 115-piece show.

Major exhibitions of the artistic heritage of ancient civilizations are enormously complicated ventures that are planned years in advance, so the scheduling of "Eternal China" is fortuitous, not opportunistic. But officials at the Santa Barbara museum are delighted with the coincidental confluence of events.

"The timing was absolutely terrific," said Robert H. Frankel, director of the museum. "The first photographs of the president down in the pit with the warriors appeared in newspapers the day the sculptures arrived here. The world didn't know that, of course, but it was wonderful for the staff."

For the public, the photographs create a geographical and historic context for the sculpture at the museum, he said. "People are aware of the warriors, but Xian is not necessarily a name with which most people are familiar."

And even those who have visited the archeological dig in central China haven't confronted the figures face-to-face. Tourists stand on the upper ground level surrounding the pit and look down on the ranks of excavated warriors, so seeing a few of the figures in a pristine gallery offers a certain advantage, Frankel said.

"What's wonderful about the exhibition is that people will have a chance to be on the same level with the figures, as the president was. They have such an extraordinary presence and they convey such a sense of history that their effect on people is very strong. Another interesting thing is that all the figures' heads are different, so one gets the sense of them being individual portraits."

The Santa Barbara show is only the latest--and far from the largest--Chinese exhibition to come to the United States during the last few years as China has become increasingly open to cultural exchange programs. "China: 5,000 Years," a sweeping survey composed of more than 500 works of art, ended a four-month run in early June at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and opened this weekend at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, where it will be on view through October.

"Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures From the National Palace Museum, Taipei"--conceived as the greatest show of Chinese art ever to come to the West, but afflicted by political tension and ultimately reduced in scope--toured the country in 1996, making appearances at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Figures from the Qin tomb in Xian have been exhibited around the United States as well. Terra cotta warriors were among the primary attractions in "Imperial Tombs of China," a 250-piece blockbuster surveying 25 centuries of Chinese history and culture, at the Portland Art Museum in 1996. In Los Angeles, the County Museum of Art displayed three of the Xian figures in 1987, in "The Quest for Eternity: Chinese Ceramic Sculpture From the People's Republic of China."

But if the Santa Barbara show might appear to be a mere rerun, Frankel said that is not the case. "Clearly other exhibitions have had material from Xian, but this is a very different kind of show." Neither a broad historical survey nor a grouping of China's greatest hits of the type generally titled "treasures," the show is "very focused on sculpture of the first two dynasties, the Qin and the Han," he said. "It concentrates solely on that, and how the sculpture reveals the life--and death--of people in those two dynasties. This is really the beginning of the whole development of Chinese art. So much was codified during the Qin dynasty."

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