Three summer exhibitions at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., break from the museum's customary program to focus on Chinese art and archeology. While the departure from the museum's strengths in Impressionists, old masters and decorative arts may seem improbable, it's no more unlikely than putting together a trove of Renoirs and Monets, for which the museum is known, in a remote mountain valley in the first place. The museum's location owes to the founder's conviction at midcentury, when the museum opened, that New York (where he also had a residence) was doomed to nuclear annihilation, and that his treasures would be safer in the Berkshires.
The museum's focus on China stems from an equally odd discovery. Long known as a collector, horse breeder and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, Robert Sterling Clark (1877–1956), recent research by museum staff has revealed, was also briefly an explorer. After a tour of army duty in Asia, Clark sponsored and led an 18-month surveying expedition in a previously unmapped region of northern China in 1808–09.
"Through Shên-kan: Sterling Clark in China" is on view at the Stone Hill Center, the Tadao Ando-designed facility opened in 2008 that houses the Williamstown Art Conservation Center along with two small galleries. In addition to artifacts and photographs from Clark's military service, as well as equipment used in his expedition, the show features several taxidermied animals bagged on the journey—a Chinese Striped Hamster, a Kangaroo Rat, an Azure-winged Magpie—some of which are the only remaining examples of now-extinct species.
With his co-expeditionist Arthur de Carle Sowerby, Clark published an illustrated book, Through Shên-kan, which the museum has re-issued in facsimile. The volume looks for all the world like a Wes Anderson film prop, and the writing at times recalls the filmmaker's deadpan: "On September 30th the caravan left Shêng-yi, and continued its route over the mountains, still in a westerly direction, patches of scrub, pine spinneys and small spaces of cultivated ground being met with."
For those familiar with the Clark's collection of Alma-Tademas, Homers, Sargents and Bouguereaus (full disclosure: this writer attended the Williams College art history graduate program, which is housed in the Clark), it all seems so implausible as to resemble a delightful, elaborate put-on, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology transplanted to bucolic western Massachusetts.
In a neighboring room, "Then and Now: Photographs of Northern China" juxtaposes pictures from Clark's expedition with images of the same sites today by photographer Li Ju. While the characteristic stepped terraces used for rice farming remain, some ancient structures have disappeared, giving way to up-to-date edifices, and the cart used by a 1908 postman has been replaced by a motorbike in the modern photo.
But the star summer offering, in the museum proper, is "Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China." For this exhibition, the Chinese government made an exception to its policy of always being the first party to publish recent discoveries. The objects on view range from the fifth through 11th centuries.
Among the show's highlights are a group of exceptionally well-preserved earthenware tomb sculptures from the Tang dynasty (618–907), especially two "Tianwang" figures (heavenly kings or lokapala), about half life-size. Their elaborately detailed and finely painted costumes, bugged-out eyes and flaming headdresses intact, they were designed to frighten off tomb robbers and to guard the "cosmic sleep" of the tomb's inhabitant. That person is unknown; the burial site is referred to as "Tomb M2," in Fujigao Village, Lingtai County, Gansu Province.
The show's most dramatic offering is a room-size, multi-ton, fifth-century sandstone sarcophagus in the shape of a Chinese house that took riggers two weeks to install. Made of more than 100 interlocking pieces, it held the remains of Song Shaozu, a high-ranking court officer.
At a lecture during the show's opening weekend, guest curator Annette Juliano of Rutgers University observed, "people always ask how long it took to create these things. Usually you don't know. This is one of the rare cases where a written record provides the answer: 60 stonemasons labored for 50 days to create this."
During the Q&A after the lecture, an audience member asked what the final resting places of those workers might look like.
"Nothing like this, that's for sure," Juliano said. "They were probably buried in an earthen grave with a few objects.
"This sort of tomb," she added, "is definitely the burial place of the one percent."
Complementing the summer program in New York is a project by Mark Dion, Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, which comprises a series of dioramas and sculptural faux specimens related to the expedition. Commissioned by the Clark, it's on view through Aug. 3 at the tony neo-Gothic Explorer's Club on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which serves as the Clark's new Manhattan satellite during the museum's $100-million-dollar expansion and renovation. The new Clark facility, also designed by Ando, is expected to open in July 2014.