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Chinese Art at the 1904 World Expo

June 30, 2010
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At Expo 2010 Shanghai, Chinese art is spread throughout the Chinese pavilions and the world-class Shanghai Museum to great effect. Roughly a century ago, during China’s first official participation in a World’s Fair, the situation was quite different.

Chinese Pavilion, 1904 World's Fair

Although not funded by the Qing (1644-1911) government, Guangdong merchant Xi Sheng 希生 and Shanghai businessman Xu Rongcun 徐榮村 established Chinese participation in World Expositions beginning with London’s Great Exposition of 1851. Privately funded Chinese exhibits continued at World Expositions until the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the St. Louis World’s Fair marked China’s first formal participation complete with an imperial delegation headed by court scion Prince Pulun 溥倫. The Qing government had committed to participating in 1902, with the Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧 giving 600,00 taels of silver (about $400,000 at the time) for the Chinese exhibits and pavilions.[1]

China’s presence on the fairgrounds included a pavilion of 15,625 square feet that accurately reproduced part of Prince Pulun’s palace in Beijing (above). The pavilion was extravagantly decorated, altogether costing $125,000 to produce and furnish.[2] On the Pike, the section of the fairgrounds that recreated life in different countries, visitors found a Chinese theater, restaurant, and shopping area. Inside the Palace of Liberal Arts, fairgoers could also take in 28,000 square feet of government, agricultural, commercial, industrial and art exhibits.

Katherine A. Carl, 'Portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi,' 1903-1904. Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

In addition to providing financial support for China’s participation in the Fair, the Empress Dowager also loaned some of her own calligraphy as well as paintings, bronzes, ceramics and other works from the imperial collection. But more significantly, she also commissioned American artist Katherine A. Carl to paint a portrait expressly for the 1904 World’s Fair audience with the goal of improving her reputation abroad – and thereby China’s as well. In 1903, soon after commissioning the portrait but before Carl began to paint, Cixi was also experimenting with photographed portraits. But Carl’s portrait of the Empress Dowager was both the first painted portrait of Cixi and the first formal public portrait of the woman who unofficially ruled China. Completed on March 19, 1904, the painting was shipped by train and steamer from Beijing, arriving in St. Louis two months later where it was formally received with a champagne reception. Carl’s portrait, as well as many of the glass plate negatives for the photographs, now reside in the Smithsonian Institution.

Chinese art exhibition, Palace of Liberal Arts

For all the art China sent to the Fair, only one work was displayed in the the Fair’s official art museum, the Palace of Fine Arts. For reasons still unclear, many of China’s contributions were reclassified from “fine art” to “applied art,” and moved to the Palace of Liberal Arts.[3] This was a dramatic departure from protocol: art from all other nations was displayed in the Palace of Fine Arts. The Chinese works were cramped tightly together displayed in the Palace of Liberal Arts to maximize the use of allotted space, and were set against the undecorated industrial interior of the building. This cluttered, overwhelming display of Chinese art, accompanied by a similarly (dis)organized and unillustrated catalogue, “often came off as backwards.”[4] Visitors described the Chinese exhibits as “topsy-turvydom,” a disorder that clashed with the neat and well-organized exhibition plan of the Fair.[5]

Gallery of Japanese art, Palace of Fine Arts (photograph from Missouri Historical Society, repr. in Christ 2000).

Martha R. Clevenger has noted that visitors to the Chinese exhibits generally seemed to measure Chinese accomplishments not only by Western standards, but also specifically in relation to Japan’s exhibitions.[6] Japan’s well-curated art exhibits emphasized sculpture and painting, including examples of the new European-style Japanese painting (Yôga). Generously spaced for easy appreciation in the Palace of Fine Arts, the refined environment of the museum – the only building at the Fair not designed as a temporary structure and still in use today as the St. Louis Art Museum – confirmed the works’ value as art produced by a modern, Westernized nation.

But while the environment of the Palace of Fine Arts enhanced Japanese art, it did not benefit the sole Chinese work there: the Empress Dowager’s portrait. Painted according to the aesthetics of traditional Chinese portraiture, Cixi explicitly instructed that no perspective, shading, or modeling be used. Katherine Carl lamented the resulting flatness of the work, saying that “these changes took away the freshness of the painting and did not add to the artistic effect of the picture.”[7] As a portrait painted by a European-trained American artist with no experience in Chinese portrait conventions, displayed for an audience with little to no prior knowledge of the significance of those conventions, divorced from any supporting cultural context, and alone in a museum filled with professionally curated exhibitions of far more accomplished works, it is unsurprising that the Empress Dowager’s portrait receives no mention in the official guide to the Fair.[8]

Although the Chinese art sent to the 1904 World’s Fair was intended to improve China’s position on the world stage, at best its effects were unremarkable. At worst, it increased the negative popular perception of the country as unsophisticated and undeveloped. But in just over a century after the St. Louis Exposition, that perception has changed dramatically as China plays host to the largest, and arguably most innovative, World Expo in history.

This article is  part of my current project on the public portraiture of the Empress Dowager Cixi. It is original work © 2010 Kristina Kleutghen and licensed under Creative Commons. You may copy, distribute, and transmit this article only under the following conditions. Please cite responsibly. Comments are most welcome!

[1] Theodore Hardee, “China’s Remarkable Exhibit at the World’s Fair,” New York Times, August 28, 1904.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carol Ann Christ, “‘The Sole Guardians of the Art Inheritance of Asia’: Japan and China at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair,” Positions 8:3 (Winter 2000),701.

[4] Christ 2000, 700.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Martha R. Clevenger, “Through Western Eyes: Americans Encounter Asians at the Fair,” Gateway Heritage 17:2 (1996).

[7] Katherine Augusta Carl, With the Empress Dowager of China (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1906), 288.

[8] Inside the Palace of Liberal Arts, however, the guide points out that China’s display of wood carving is “especially noteworthy.” At the time of writing, the only mention of the portrait at the Fair that that I have found is in Katherine Carl’s autobiography.

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