Boston reenters China trade -- with arts exchanges

Boston is back in the China trade. The city whose clipper ships brought vast quantities of Chinese art and furnishings to America now is reversing the tide -- by sending to the People's Republic of China the first official collection of American paintings in 30 years.

It is all part of an unprecedented thawing of the world's most populous country following the normalization of diplomatic relations and the 1979 signing of the US-Chinese Cultural Agreement by President Jimmy Carter and Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping.

The 70 American paintings, which will tour Peking and Shanghai from September through November, are all from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), which has a particularly strong collection of American painting and (due partly to gifts from local private estates assembled in the 18th and 19th century) one of the most comprehensive collections of Oriental art in the Western world.

The work have been chosen to represent the history of American painting -- from the 17th-century portraiture of John Singleton Copley through the seascapes of Fitz Hugh Lane and Winslow Homer, and on to the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

Since the communist revolution establishing the People's Republic of China in 1949, the country has largely been closed to the influence of Western art. Most of what the present generation of Chinese knows has come through photographs says Peabody Gardner, the MFA's assistant to the director who is overseeing the exhibition. "They've never looked at an American painting on a one-to-one basis ," he notes, adding, "It's fascinating to think of what their reaction will be."

The museum was invited to organize the tour by the US International Communication Agency (ICA), which works closely with the Chinese Ministry of Culture and has already lent its support to Chinese tours by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Ballet.

This time, however, the ICA is footing the entire bill of $250,000 -- an indication, perhaps, of the brisk upswing in cultural relations between the two countries. Museum personnel point out, however, that the exchange should not be taken as a particular pointer for President Reagan's foreign policy because it was formally agreed to last fall.

Since then, museum staffers have visited China, talked with artists and officials, and scouted out the museums and the routes to be followed. And while there was talk earler of excluding nudes and abstracts, museum officials point out that there are no limitations -- beyond those posed by trying to send some of the massive canvases of modern painters to a country lacking huge trailer-trucks, superhighways, and folklifts.The paintings will travel by military train and be moved by hand.

More complex are the questions of artistic choice."Do we pick things we think the Chinese will like," muses Theodore Stebbins Jr., curator of American paintings, "or ones we regard as important?" He also faced the challenge of writing a catalog -- for translation into Chinese -- that avoids all the "isms" that are now second nature to Western art critics but which remain unknown to the Chinese.

Among those most interested in the collection are the Chinese artists themselves. Like artists everywhere, says Mr. Gardner, "they're always hungry for new input, new ideas for putting themselves into as broad a historical context as they can." And, says 20th-century curator Kenworth Moffett, they will be particularly eager to see the seven modern abstract paintings -- including one by Friedl Dzubas, who currently teaches at the museum school.

Nor, thinks Mr. Moffett, will they be put off by America's modernism. "They worked on the floor [rather than on more typical vertical surfaces] in the eighth century," says Moffett. "They know all about induced spontaneity and thrown ink."

The trade is flowing westward, too: a collection of recently unearthed bronze , jade, and terracotta figures from the bronze age of China (ca. 2000 BC) is now touring the nation. Last stop: Boston, where it will be the inaugural exhibition in the MFA's new $22 million West W ing, opening July 22.

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