The Sterling and Francine Clark Summer 2012 Highlights: China in the Berkshires & Impressionists in London

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The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown and, this summer, in London (at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly) provide two of my favorite “e”s: exploration and education.

In Williamstown, experiencing art and studying visual culture is, this summer, about China. Sterling Clark’s own expedition as a gentleman explorer and adventurer is celebrated in “Through Shên-kan: Sterling Clark in China” (through September 16, 2012).

In celebration of the centenary of the 1912 publication of Clark and co-author Arthur de C. Sowerby, Through Shen-kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China 1908-9, the Institute is contemplating Clark’s life and experiences in China. The celebratory exhibition includes biological specimens, scientific equipment and instruments, historic photographs, and original documents relating to the expedition.

Robert S. Clark (left) and Arthur de C. Sowerby (right) with Christmas Day’s Bag of Pheasants: image courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

The exhibition, and its curatorial attention to detail, is superb and inspiring to young would-be explorers, and those who wish to inspire them. For example, instruments are set in the center of a gallery with a full wall image of China – Clark’s China – on one wall, with another wall facing the natural light and bucolic scenery of the Clark’s campus.

As an educational institution, the Clark funded two young then-undergraduate women from Oxford University’s New College to trace the entirety of Clark’s planned 2,000-mile trip. The young ladies did so (between terms), although they used buses and trains, rather than only the mules Clark and Sowerby’s team had to rely upon.

Also in celebration – and as an update – of the Clark expedition of 1908-9 is a magnificent series of images by Chinese photographer Li Ju, entitled, “Then & Now:  Photographs of Northern China” (through September 16, 2012). Li Ju, like the Oxford students, was captivated by the historical Clark expedition. Whereas one of the two young ladies happened upon maps and a copy of Clark’s book during a particularly productive study aversion break, which led to life lessons in their 2008 China trip, Li Ju came to discover the discoverers (pun intended) when he happened upon a group of photographs of the Loess Plateau, photos taken by the Clark expedition. Li Ju’s find included images of cities, landscapes, fortresses and biological specimens of the region. Li Ju sought out a copy of Clark and Sowerby’s book about the expedition, which he read many times, and which inspired him to take his own journey through Shen-kan. Starting in November 2008, Li Ju took several trips, ultimately pairing original cityscapes, landscapes, people and religious/cultural sights in duos of original historical images and his contemporary ones. More than mere juxtaposition, these pairs inspire what C. Wright Mills would have called the sociological imagination. “Then & Now” will certainly fire the imaginations of school-aged students and older students of life. Avid travelers, armchair tourists and young future explorers will have food for thought.

Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China” (until October 21, 2012) is a blockbuster. Unearthed presents rare burial objects to contemplate the discovery and impact of modern Chinese archaeology. To say that this exhibition features objects recently excavated from sites in the Shanxi and Gansu provinces is accurate, but underplays the fact that the objects have never before been seen outside of China.

A full-sized stone sarcophagus (which was, miraculously, discovered in 2004) is a treasure of a tomb – to see this 8 foot by 12 foot treasure in person inspires one word: “wow.” Guest curator Annette Juliano of Rutgers University, along with the Clark’s curatorial team, managed to get permission to have the 10 tomb sarcophagus, styled as a traditional Chinese house, installed at the Clark; the first time the 101 piece burial house has been fully assembled since being removed from the Shanxi province excavation.

Zhenmushou (Tomb Guardian Beast), Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), Painted and gilt earthenware. Lingtai County Museum, Pingliang. Image courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Other treasures include six objects from a tomb discovered in Gansu province in 2009, including a group of terra cotta guardians displayed as they were when positioned initially in the tomb in the eighth century. These, along with other ornamental artifacts shed light on the social, political, and cultural shifts in northern China from the fifth to the eleventh century, some due to the thriving trade along the Silk Road, and also due to the military and political ascendance of nomadic tribes, with the result that visitors are able to enhance their understanding of ancient Chinese cultures.

The famed Clark Institute’s Impressionist Collection has also sent some 70 major works to London, where they are on view at the Royal Academy of Arts (until September 23, 2012).  “From Paris, A Taste for Impressionism: Paintings from the Clark,” is presented by genre to reveal the range of subject matter and the diversity of stylistic approaches Sterling and Francine Clark found in French 19th century art.

The exhibition dates to 1910 and onwards – in other words, shortly after Sterling Clark’s military career and time as a gentleman explorer. The exhibits on each side of the Pond draw those who would like to experience the depth and breadth of the Clark’s collections.

Taken separately, these exhibits are breathtaking; taken together, they run nearly the length of Sterling Clark’s post-military adult life and make a fascinating study of a collector.

Visitors to the Berkshires (and to its current outpost in London) will experience exploration, education, and perhaps a bit of inspiration. Not that I would ever tell my students to hit a gallery instead of the books (says she who regularly visited the Royal Academy of Arts when she should have been touring the stacks at the library of the London School of Economics!).

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is located at 225 South Street, Williamstown, MA 01267, and can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr.

For a listing of lodging options in the Berkshires, click here.

Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD, was named the 2011/2012 Faculty Member of the Year at St. Francis College, where she teaches in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. She recently gave a paper at the 2012 International Visual Sociology Association meeting regarding her semester-long Team Project, a socialization exercise she has used in sociology, anthropology, criminology and legal studies classes, and which involves an art walk, a dinner meeting, a film/theater event and a presentation. Previously, she engaged in ethnographic research in Michigan (where maps were her best friend for exploration, as well as research in the state); her PhD, which she received in 2009 from the London School of Economics, based upon her thesis entitled, “The Politics of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: A Comparative Case Study of Emerging Criminal Law and the Criminal Trials of Jack ‘Dr. Death’ Kevorkian” and her first book, “Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America:  The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate,” (Greenwood Press, forthcoming 2012) is due out in September. You can find her on Twitter @DemetraPappas.